Starling Marte dug into the right-handed batter’s box as he has done several times during his Pittsburgh Pirates career.
He flashed a smile after tracking the first pitch back to the catcher’s mitt.
This plate appearance, though, was different.
Marte wasn’t wearing a Pirates uniform or hitting against a major league pitcher from a different organization.
He was going up against Pittsburgh ace Gerrit Cole.
Because Marte is playing for Team Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. Teammate Gregory Polanco was also in Wednesday’s starting lineup at LECOM Park for a Dominican team that finished its second exhibition game in as many days, prior to beginning Pool C action in Miami on Thursday.
The Dominican Republic is the defending WBC champion, and Wednesday’s exhibition featured a stacked lineup with Carlos Santana, Robinson Cano, Manny Machado, Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz, Jean Segura and more going against Cole and the other Pittsburgh pitchers.
They’re good hitters. You leave it over the middle to Greg, he’s going to hit it. And Marte is a five-tool player.
Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole
“We are pretty confident,” Polanco said.
Marte’s first at-bat against Cole? He grounded out, acknowledging right fielder John Jaso as he ran down the first base line past the bag by pointing to his Pirates teammate.
Polanco, though, succeeded in his at-bat against Cole. The left-handed hitting outfielder cranked a 1-0 pitch to right-center field for a double.
“They’re good hitters. You leave it over the middle to Greg, he’s going to hit it,” Cole said. “And Marte is a five-tool player.”
The Dominican Republic team wasn’t a regular visiting spring training lineup and the atmosphere was a bit different, too.
A loud drum gave LECOM Park a soccer-like feel, but that’s how baseball is in other parts of the world.
“That’s fun,” Cole said. “I played for Team USA two years, and when you play overseas, a lot of the different venues are unique in Taiwan and in Japan and when a Latin American team shows up like Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican, they always bring a band with them. So it’s kind of a cool atmosphere. It’s something we’re not used to it. It’s pretty special.”
The Dominican team trained at Pirate City, and general manager Moises Alou, who began his career with the Pirates organization, said Major League Baseball decided where they trained and who they played before the WBC tournament games.
Alou already had a relationship with the Marte and Polanco. The two played on Alou’s winter ball team in the Dominican.
“Those are like my two kids. Starling and Gregory,” Alou said. “We have a very good relationship. So as soon as I started to put the team together, those are one of the two guys that I approached about being on the team.”
Pittsburgh overhauled its outfield alignment, shuffling Marte from left to center field and Polanco from right to left field, for the upcoming 2017 regular season. Andrew McCutchen, who is with Team USA, was moved from center to right field.
For Dominican manager Tony Pena, the choice to play Marte in center was decided before the Pirates announced the change.
“We felt Marte would be the best fit ... for us in center field,” Pena said.
Marte played center field for Pena, who was his manager during Dominican winter league ball.
“I’m proud to be there,” Marte said. “They want me to be there in center field, and be the best, 100 percent. I’m happy to be there, too.”
This week’s time between Pirate City and Wednesday’s trip to the former McKechnie Field gave Alou and Pena their first experiences there in years.
“I looked around the whole complex and tears started to come out of my eyes,” said Pena, who last visited Pirate City in 1986. “... I started with the Pirates when I was 18. And I left the organization when I was 26. So there were a lot of memories.”
On Wednesday, a special memory came for the 4,204 fans — many supporting the Dominican Republic — who witnessed an all-star lineup crank out 13 hits en route to a 10-6 victory.
Who: Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay
When: Thursday, 1:05 p.m.
Where: Charlotte Sports Park, Port Charlotte
Starting pitchers: Chad Kuhl vs. Blake Snell.
Expected Pirates pitchers: Felipe Rivero, A.J. Schugel and Wade LeBlanc.