Braves’ Simmons ready for season after WBC stint

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Andrelton Simmons had mixed feelings when he left Braves spring training 3-1/2 weeks ago to play in the World Baseball Classic, but the shortstop knew he’d made the right decision as he helped lead the Netherlands to a surprising berth in the tourney semifinals.

“It was a great experience, and I took a lot from it,” said Simmons, who hit .333 (10-for-30) with three doubles, two homers and a .382 on-base percentage while batting leadoff for the Dutch team, which advanced to the final four in San Francisco before losing to eventual champion Dominican Republic on Monday.

Simmons, coming off an impressive rookie season with the Braves, drew praise from far and wide for his all-around performance in the WBC. He played alert, often-spectacular defense, led the WBC with 10 runs scored in eight games and finished with 19 total bases, topped only by Dominican star Robinson Cano’s 25.

“We had a blast,” Simmons said. “I didn’t expect it to be that fun and didn’t expect the team to be that good. But we worked well together. Everybody had fun with each other. I mean, we did great, I think.”

Back in Braves camp after the team’s day off Tuesday, Simmons was in the lineup Wednesday against Pittsburgh. He said Wednesday morning that he was “game-ready” for the season following his WBC stint, then showed it by doubling off the center-field wall on the second pitch of the game.

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No one predicted the Netherlands would advance beyond the second round. Not from a four-team group that included international powerhouses Japan and Cuba, with only two teams advancing.

But the Dutch beat the Cubans twice, and Simmons’ tying two-run homer in the eighth inning of an elimination game at the Tokyo Dome was something fans back home in Curacao and across the Kingdom of the Netherlands won’t soon forget. Netherlands manager Hensley Muelens called the 7-6 win “the biggest game in Dutch history.”

“It was crazy,” Simmons said. “When I was rounding third base and I saw everybody out (of the dugout), how excited they were, they transferred their energy to me. It was insane.”

No one seemed more excited after Simmons’ homer or throughout the team’s run than longtime former Braves center fielder Andruw Jones, frequently the first player off the Netherlands bench to pump a fist after key moments.

“That was cool,” said Simmons, who grew up revering his fellow Curacao native. “He’s a legend for us. Playing with him was fun. I never thought I was going to play with him. He treated us, took us out to eat and everything. The leadership was there. He was making sure everybody was up in the dugout, keeping the energy up. And he had some good at-bats, even though they pretty much pitched around him the whole tournament.”

Jones was particularly animated during the wins against Cuba and its flamboyant manager Victor Mesa, who said Cuba was the better team after its first loss to the Dutch.

“(Jones) had something personal with the manager,” Simmons said. “They were at each other. It was fun to see.”

Fittingly, it was Jones who scored the winning run in the ninth inning of the elimination game against Cuba.

Simmons was asked to compare the atmosphere of the later-round games, particularly against Cuba, to the Wild Card game the Braves played against St. Louis in October at sold-out Turner Field.

“It’s pretty much the same,” he said. “Pretty intense. I mean, the Cubans … it got personal the second game, the final game. It got real personal. The (Cuban) manager just ignited us, pretty much. It was crazy. It was a playoff atmosphere.

“He was saying some stuff during the last game. I don’t know exactly what he said, but I heard it wasn’t pretty. So everybody was trying to beat him pretty much. It was not even Cuba anymore, it was trying to shut him up.”

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