MIAMI -- They had rallied all the way back, erasing an early four-run deficit, but if Mexico was to advance to its first World Baseball Classic semifinal and eliminate a star-studded Puerto Rico team, another big play needed to be made.
Randy Arozarena, of course, delivered it.
Clinging to a one-run lead in the eighth inning of Friday night's quarterfinal matchup, Arozarena raced near the left-center-field fence and made an improbable leaping catch up against it, erasing what would have been a game-tying extra-base hit and helping Mexico, his adopted home country, hold on to a 5-4 victory in front of a sellout crowd at LoanDepot Park.
Arozarena became a household name while dominating throughout the 2020 postseason. When his Tampa Bay Rays reached the World Series, he provided three home runs. Arozarena was reminded of that late Friday night and was asked to identify his best moment on a baseball field.
"2023, World Baseball Classic, eighth inning, that catch," he said in Spanish, drawing a laugh from a packed interview room.
Arozarena, 28, was born and raised in Cuba. He left the island in 2015 and arrived in Mexico, where he played winter ball, had a daughter and fell in love with his new home. He became a citizen of Mexico in April of last year solely because he wanted to represent the nation in this World Baseball Classic -- and he has taken full advantage.
Arozarena was the MVP of Pool C, going 7-for-14 while driving in nine runs and scoring six others as Mexico won three of its four games. He then made the biggest play in arguably the biggest game in Mexican baseball history, sending Mexico into a semifinal matchup against powerhouse Japan on Monday.
"I feel incredible," Arozarena said. "I've had some incredible moments for my career."
Puerto Rico, playing in the wake of Edwin Diaz's sobering knee injury, jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first inning against Mexican ace Julio Urias, getting back-to-back home runs from Javier Baez and Eddie Rosario. But Puerto Rico didn't muster much offense the rest of the way, and Mexico finally bridged the gap while down to its last seven outs.
Alexis Diaz entered to his brother's famous walk-out song, "Narco," but proceeded to load the bases with none out, giving up a double to Austin Barnes and back-to-back walks to Arozarena and Alex Verdugo. Jorge Lopez came out of the bullpen to record two quick outs. But Isaac Paredes lined a two-run single to left field and Luis Urias dumped a base hit into shallow right, giving Mexico its first lead of the game.
Edwin Diaz, who tore the patellar tendon in his right knee during Puerto Rico's on-field celebration following its win against the Dominican Republic on Wednesday night, reached out to Alexis after the game to tell him he went through similar situations in 2019. He told him to block all the outside noise and to keep believing in himself.
"It's been really painful for me," Alexis Diaz, seemingly on the verge of tears, said of not having his brother with him. "I wanted both of us to be together in the Classic. Not having him here has been really tough for me. But I'm a warrior and I went out there. I couldn't accomplish what I wanted, but I'm going to keep going forward this season."
Puerto Rico had a chance to avenge Diaz and tie the game the following inning, with a runner on first and Emmanuel Rivera uncorking a deep drive to left-center field. But Arozarena, who has awed fans with his play and dazzled teammates with his cowboy boots during this tournament, wouldn't have it. After he secured the catch and chucked the baseball back toward the infield, Arozarena settled onto the warning track and stretched his arms out wide, his palms exposed and his mouth agape, another signature pose from the Cuban-born outfielder who fell in love with Mexico.
Said Mexican manager Benji Gil: "He's a kid who's incredibly focused on doing everything within his power to help this family of Mexican warriors get a chance to play for a world championship."