By Gabriel Fidler (@gabrielfidler)
Carlos Santana broke a scoreless tie in the fifth inning with a monstrous solo home run and the Dominican Republic shut out Puerto Rico, 2-0, to win Pool 2 of the World Baseball Classic. The victors will face the Netherlands in San Francisco and be joined by Puerto Rico, who will take on Japan.
Both teams continued to exhibit the impressive starting pitching that has carried them through the Classic. Wandy Rodríguez toed the rubber for the Dominicans and did not allow Puerto Rico to put multiple runners on base in his six innings. Orlando Román was nearly as strong, giving up just two hits over five frames.
Neither country threatened until the third, when Carlos Rivera led off with a hit for Puerto Rico. Rivera exited with a strained muscle and Irving Falú pinch ran for the burly first baseman. Falú took off for second and stole the bag successfully, but Carlos Santana’s throw went into centre and Puerto Rico had a runner on third.
Rodríguez buckled down against Andy González, who hit what turned out to be a game-winning double to defeat the U.S. the night before, and struck him out looking on his signature curveball. Jesús Feliciano was the next batter up, and Rodríguez induced a ground ball to shortstop. Falú was sprinting with the crack of the bat, but Erick Aybar ranged into the hole and threw a perfect strike off balance to home to nail Falú as Santana applied the tag.
With a runner now on first, the Dominican southpaw got Ángel Pagán to fly out and the scoreless tie remained.
Román faced his first threat in the bottom of the inning. Santana walked to start things off and moved over on a single by Moisés Sierra, who was making his first start of the WBC. Román got a huge strikeout for the first out and then got José Reyes to fly out. A grounder by Aybar ended the frame.
Puerto Rico almost capitalised on the plucky hurling of Román in the fourth. Luís Figueroa doubled with no outs, but Rodríguez continued to use his curve effectively, striking out Beltrán, getting the clutch-hitting Mike Avles to fly out, and after the runner advanced on the fly, bearing down on Álex Ríos for another K.
Neither side got another hit until the fifth, when Santana started the inning with his own rally, crushing a changeup well over the right field fence for his second four-bagger of the Classic. The solo shot travelled 427 feet, one of few balls that Marlins Park was not able to hold in the six games played there.
Román finished the frame with ease, but his afternoon was done after five innings. He took the loss despite allowing two hits and one walk, striking out four.
Rodríguez went six frames, finishing under the 80-pitch restriction for the second round. He retired the last nine in-a-row that faced him, whiffing four. He scattered two walks and a pair of hits for his first World Baseball Classic victory.
Efraín Ñieves continued Puerto Rico’s strong pitching effort in the sixth and seventh, working around a baserunner each time. José Veras and Santiago Casilla matched his zeroes with one inning apiece of their own.
Aybar once more made a big defensive play to get Casilla out of trouble in the eighth. The Dominican reliever walked Martín Maldonaldo to start the frame and gave up a sacrifice Falú. González rocketed a ball at Aybar with one out, and the shortstop gunned won Maldonaldo advancing to third. Casilla put another run on base via a free pass, but finished with a ground ball.
The Dominicans struck against Ñieves in the bottom of the frame. Aybar reached on a one-base hit and moved to third on Robinsón Canó’s first hit of the day and Puerto Rico’s manager, Edwin Rodríguez, went to his ‘pen. Randy Fontañez got the second out, but Canó created an extra run for the Dominicans with his baserunning.
With Francisco Peña, a defensive replacement and son of Dominican manager Tony Peña, batting, Canó took off for second. Peña stroked a hard-hit ground ball to the right side and Falú, forgetting there were two outs and racing instinctively to cover, was too close to second to field the ball. Aybar scored on the RBI-single.
Fontañez escaped without giving up another run, but had a scare on the third out, as Nelson Cruz discharged a line drive to the warning track in left centre field, but Eddie Rosario chased the ball down for the third out.
Fernando Rodney came on for the ninth and earned his fifth save of the tournament despite giving up a double to deep left field to his nemesis Aviles. Aviles is 4-for-8 in his big league career against the closer, but Rodney preserved the shutout and entered the record books for his efforts. Rodney, already the record-holder for most saves in a World Baseball Classic, saved his fifth game, setting the career mark in his first WBC appearance.
The Dominicans mustered only six hits and three walks, with Santana the only hitting star. He finished 1-for-1 with two walks. Canó improved his WBC hitting streak to six games. Puerto Rico had only three hits against Rodríguez and the three relievers and was 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position.
The Dominican Republic became the second team to go undefeated through the first two rounds of the WBC. The last was Korea in the 2006 tournament, though they would lose their next game, 6-0 in the semifinals to eventual champions Japan.
The Dominicans avoided a meeting with Japan with the victory, though they will put their winning streak on the line in the single-elimination semis against the Netherlands on Mar. 19 at 1 a.m. GMT. The Netherlands upset them twice in the last Classic to eliminate them in the first round. Puerto Rico will have to travel to San Francisco without an off day as they face Samurai Japan on Mar. 18 at 1 a.m. GMT.
Stay tuned for coverage of the two semifinal games and the championship match, as well as all your World Baseball Classic news and analysis.