The Dominican Republic’s Tigres del Licey defeated Panama’s Federales de Chiriqui to return to the Caribbean Series final. (Foto: Luis Gutierrez /NortePhoto.com/Prensa CBPC)
By Conor Liguori
World Baseball Network
MIAMI – The loanDepotPark roof was open one minute and closed the next, and for that brief hour on Thursday, the Federales de Chiriquí of Panama soaked up the Florida sunlight and tossed a football around to loosen their throwing arms before Thursday’s Caribbean Series semifinals.
Panama’s opponent, the Tigres del Licey of the Dominican Republic, needed a victory to have an opportunity to defend their title. The organization won its 12th Caribbean Series championship in 2023 against the Leones del Caracas of Venezuela at La Rinconada Baseball Stadium in Caracas, Venezuela, and will have a chance to win another Friday night after defeating the Federales 4-1 on Thursday afternoon.
The Dominican Republic was on the board in the top of the first on an RBI single from Dawel Lugo, though Lugo took a wide turn rounding first base and was caught in a pickle to end the half-inning. Gustavo Nunez scored from second on the play before Lugo was tagged out.
With Junior Lake on first base in the top of the third for the Tigres del Licey, Panama starting pitcher Harold Arauz was called for a balk, moving Lake into scoring position. Emilio Bonifacio hit an RBI single one pitch later to extend the lead to 2-0. A few batters later, a visibly frustrated Arauz was removed from the game.
Yadiel Hernandez added a sacrifice fly to center in the third to give the Dominican Republic a 3-0 lead.
For what seems like the umpteenth time this Caribbean Series, Robinson Cano hit a fly ball just shy of leaving the yard in the top of the fifth. A two-run shot would’ve given the Dominican Republic a commanding 5-0 lead.
Jonathan Aro replaced the Dominican Republic starter Cameron Gann in the bottom of the fifth. Gann, a reinforcement from the Leones del Escogido, had a great outing, allowing just three hits and striking out two in 4.1 innings. Most importantly, he did not give up a run.
Panama flirted with getting on the scoreboard in the fourth and fifth innings but was unable to do score, and they only managed to put five men on base through six innings with three hits.
An RBI single from Kelvin Gutierrez put the Dominican Republic ahead 4-0 in the top of the sixth, and a 3-6-4 double play hit by Yadiel Hernandez concluded a potentially productive inning for the D.R. in the seventh.
Dominican Republic manager Gilbert Gomez utilized his bullpen perfectly, bringing in former Texas Rangers lockdown closer Neftali Feliz in the seventh, J.C. Mejia in the eighth, and closer Jairo Asencio in the ninth.
Panama scored their first run of the game in the bottom of the eighth on a bloop single to center field by designated Ivan Herrera. Allen Cordoba, who reached first on an error by D.R. shortstop Gustavo Nunez, scored on the hit.
Asencio retired three of the five Panama hitters he faced in the ninth to send the Tigres del Licey of the Dominican Republic back to the Caribbean Series championship game with a 4-1 win and was credited with the save, giving him the career record for saves in Caribbean Series games with 10.
Panama right fielder Ricardo Cespedes was thrown out at third base by D.R. right fielder Junior Lake for the last out of the game. Cespedes made a crucial mistake rounding second and heading toward third, getting tagged and called out in a bang-bang play by Dawel Lugo that was reviewed and upheld.
Panama finished the 2024 Caribbean Series with an overall record of 5-2, and were just two wins shy of what could have been their first championship since the Toros de Herrera won the event at Estadio Nacional de Panamá in Panama City, Panama, in 2019.
The Dominican Republic will face the winner of tonight’s 8 p.m. EST semifinal matchup between Curacao and Venezuela in the championship game on Friday, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m. EST.
All 2024 Caribbean Series will be televised on ESPN Deportes and ESPN+ until the final out of the championship game.