BARRIO – (MLB) Duque Hebbert was sitting in the bullpen when the phone rang. Once he heard his name called, Hebbert knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime.
What he didn’t know, however, was who he was set to face in the top of the ninth. The Dominican Republic had the top of its order due up, which meant Hebbert was about to experience facing Juan Soto, Julio Rodríguez and Manny Machado, three of the biggest stars in the Majors.
“I was like ‘Oh my God,’” Hebbert told MLB.com in Spanish. “I got the toughest part of the lineup.”
As he threw his warmup pitches, the 21-year-old Nicaraguan right-hander couldn’t help but feel nervous. But as he ran out to the mound, those nerves surprisingly went away. He just thought about his family back home in Nicaragua. He thought about the opportunity in front of him. If nothing else, this would be the highlight of his career.
What followed in the final inning of Nicaragua’s 6-1 loss to the Dominican Republic on Monday turned into one of the most memorable moments in World Baseball Classic history.
Hebbert struck out Soto to start the inning with a changeup that completely turned Soto around. Soto smiled at Hebbert as he swung through strike three.
Rodríguez suffered the same fate, going down swinging against the right-hander. Machado followed, but he was able to hit a hanging slider for a double. But as is often the case in the Dominican Republic’s lineup, it didn’t get any easier. Hebbert was now going to face Rafael Devers.
Hebbert went down in the count, 3-1, to the Red Sox slugger. He took deep breaths after every pitch. Devers was almost daring the right-hander to throw him a pitch in the zone. Any pitcher, even those in the big leagues, would easily be intimidated. Hebbert, on the other hand, went right at him. Devers fouled it off to load the count. Two pitches later, Hebbert got Devers swinging on a changeup. As he walked back to the dugout, Devers gave Hebbert a thumbs-up.
His performance was more than enough to accomplish that goal. What followed, however, turned the story that much sweeter for the right-hander. Luis Molina, who is working for Team Nicaragua in the WBC, is also a scout for the Tigers. As Hebbert walked off the mound, Molina, who had already expressed interest in Hebbert following his outing in an exhibition game against the Cardinals, asked Hebbert a simple question.
He had won the battle against three players who will make upwards of $700 million in their big league careers. Hebbert punched out a trio who have a combined five Silver Slugger Awards.
“I just told myself that baseball is meant to be enjoyed and not to be scared,” Hebbert said. “I was trying to make my family proud. I wanted to make my family proud.”
“We really like what we see,” Hebbert recalled Molina telling him. “Would you like to sign with the Tigers?”
Hebbert couldn’t believe it. His dream of finally signing with a Major League organization was about to come true. He immediately agreed to a deal with Detroit, though that won’t become official until he heads back to Nicaragua to sign in front of his family and friends, especially so he can have his grandmother and mother by his side — the first two people he called upon agreeing to a deal.
“Those are the two people that I want to be successful for,” Hebbert said. “Without them, I’m nothing in this life. They raised me the right way. I love those two women.”
At 21 years old, Hebbert’s journey to being found by scouts wasn’t easy. He has been through numerous tryouts over the past few years. Most of those, however, came while he was an outfielder. As he realized he wasn’t getting much interest at the position, Hebbert continued to push through. He didn’t want to give up on his dream. Instead, he became a pitcher about a year and a half ago.
During that span, Hebbert played in a small league for locals in Nicaragua. He then jumped to the Nicaraguan Winter League last season with Tren Del Norte. Hebbert was named Rookie of the Year in the league after posting a 4.71 ERA over 28 2/3 innings.
“This is something amazing in my career,” Hebbert said. “I’ve always wanted that moment and to try and be successful in baseball. Thank God I had the opportunity.”
Molina believes Hebbert could continue developing as a pitcher as he gets more comfortable with the right type of training for pitchers. His velocity, which was around 90 mph on Monday, could improve. He’ll likely start his professional career in one of the lower levels of the Minors.
Whatever happens is to be determined. But Hebbert will always have the game ball and photos with Soto and Machado. It’s a day he’ll never forget.
“I’m going to put [that ball] on my wall,” Hebbert smiled. “So it can be the first thing I see when I wake up.”