By Gabriel Fidler (@gabrielfidler)
In a game that truly earned the title of World Baseball Classic, Erick Aybar delivered a pinch hit, go-ahead single in the ninth inning to lead the Dominican Republic in a 3-1 victory over the United States. The dramatic victory qualified the Dominicans for the semifinal round and pushed the U.S.A. within one loss of elimination.
Both teams featured dominant pitching throughout the game, with neither nation able to mount a consistent offence. Despite the absence of ‘Captain America’, David Wright, the U.S. struck in the first against Samuel Deduno, who otherwise had a stellar performance.
Deduno, coming off a strong showing against Spain in the first round, looked shaky to start the game. He gave up a one-out single to Brandon Phillips before getting Ryan Braun swinging. Joe Mauer stroked a one-base hit off Deduno before Giancarlo Stanton bounced a ball up the middle that was stopped by a diving José Reyes. Reyes could not get a strong enough toss to second for the forceout and the U.S. had the bases jammed.
Deduno briefly lost control of the strike zone against Eric Hosmer, who took a four-pitch free pass to push across the first run for the U.S. The Dominican hurler followed with a full count against Adam Jones, but dropped a curveball down the heart of the plate to catch Jones looking. It was the last time that the U.S. would have multiple runners on base.
R.A. Dickey started for the United States and had a better feel of his knuckleball than in his first WBC start, but after retiring the first four Dominican batters, left a knuckler in Hanley Ramírez’s wheelhouse. Ramírez crushed the ball to the walkway in left centre, striking the ‘427 foot’ sign with the ball.
Dickey almost ran in to trouble with two outs in the inning after a single by Carlos Santana, sending him to second on a wild pitch. The right-hander got out of the frame with a groundball to keep the score level.
J.P. Arencibia led off the bottom of the second with a single against Deduno. After the runner advanced to second on a sacrifice, Deduno bore down, striking out Jimmy Rollins looking and getting a grounder from Phillips.
The Dominicans got two hits in the third, but Dickey once more battled out of the jam, and the two starters traded zeroes through the fourth. Deduno hit his pitch count after four, but struck out seven while scattering seven baserunners. The U.S. had a runner on base in all four of his frames, but Deduno worked around it every time with a tight curveball to compliment his 92-mph/148-kmh tailing fastball.
Dickey lasted five frames before exiting at the pitch limit. After a booming double by Nelson Cruz with one out in the fourth, Dickey sent down the final five batters he faced. He struck out four, walked one, and surrendered five hits.
From the bottom of the fifth onward, it was a battle of the bullpens. Both teams were up to the task, with each registering only one hit between the fifth and eighth innings. Kelvin Herrera was particularly impressive in relief of Deduno, working through the heart of the US order in the fifth and sixth, allowing no hits or base on balls.
Luke Gregerson, Tim Collins, and Steve Cishek worked the sixth through eight innings for U.S. manager Joe Torre. Cishek hurled an impressive 1-2-3 inning in the eighth against Robinsón Canó, Edwin Encarnación, and Ramírez, catching the latter looking on strike three and leaping off the mound with a triumphant fist pump.
The U.S. got only their sixth hit of the game in the eighth, but Pedro Strop was not troubled by the Mauer safety, striking out Giancarlo Stanton looking and getting a fly ball from Eric Hosmer to send the game to the ninth.
Torre sent in his closer, Craig Kimbrel, with the game tied at one and the 6-7-8 hitters due up for the Dominican Republic. Cruz torched his second double of the game, this time sending it to the opposite alley from his first two-bagger.
Stanton, the rightfielder for the Americans, made a nice play to cut off the ball, diving to catch the ball off one bounce and throwing a laser into second, just behind Cruz. Kimbrel gave up only one double in all of 2012 while finishing games for the Atlanta Braves.
Santana bounced out slowly to second, and Cruz was off with the pitch, making it to third without drawing a throw. With Ricardo Nanita, the only member of the Dominican lineup without big league experience due up, Dominican skipper Tony Peña sent in pinch hitter Erick Aybar.
Aybar took a called strike two on a horrendous call by the home plate umpire, bounding out of the box in disbelief, but ripped the next ball to shallow right field. Cruz came racing home with the Dominicans’ first run since the second inning, and Aybar had a RBI-single as the well-represented Dominican fans erupted into pandemonium. The dugout for the visitors erupted as well, and Cruz was battered with praise as he made his way to the bench.
Peña’s men were not finished with Kimbrel, as Aybar took off for second on the next batter, stealing second base and putting another run in scoring position. Kimbrel got out number two on a strikeout, but Reyes struck a single to left field and Aybar sprinted home to make it 3-1. By this point, both the players and fans for the Dominican Republic were in an absolute frenzy as the U.S.’ fans looked on helplessly.
Torre had finally had enough from Kimbrel, who had a 1.01 ERA in 2012, inserting Mitchell Boggs. Boggs got a ground ball to put an end to the rally, but the Dominican Republic had firmly taken the momentum.
Fernando Rodney entered to close out the game and did just that. Peña’s stopper got a 1-2-3 inning, striking out one for his fourth save of the Classic, tied for most all-time. Strop improved to 3-0, setting WBC records for most wins in a tournament and eclipsing the previous mark for career victories by a reliever.
While Aybar may have been the player of the game, Cruz and Santana each notched two hits to lead the Dominican. U.S. pitchers struck out nine of their opponents and held the Dominicans hitless with runners in scoring position until Kimbrel’s implosion.
Kimbrel suffered his first loss for Team U.S.A., ruining a night that had seen the Americans hold the powerful Dominican bats to six hits until the ninth frame. Mauer was the sole hitting star for the U.S., collecting a pair of safeties to raise his average in the tournament to .444.
The red, white, and blue certainly missed the contributions of Wright, who came in hitting .438 with a Classic-leading 10 RBI. The team was only 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position and struck out nine times while leaving eight runners stranded.
Wright will be questionable with a sore back for the Americans’ next game against Puerto Rico. Torre will only have a day to regroup before facing intra-national rivals in Marlins Park. Game time is scheduled for 7 pm. EST on Mar. 15. The loser will return home, while the winner will join the Netherlands, Japan, and the Dominican Republic in San Francisco.
Before flying across the country, the Dominicans will have one more game to determine whether they will face the Dutch or the Japanese in AT&T Park. The 1 p.m. EST game on Mar. 16 will pit them against the winner of the U.S.-Puerto Rico contest.
Stay tuned for coverage of the final two games of the second round and the single-elimination finals of the 2013 World Baseball Classic.