SAN DIEGO, Calif – The first six Puerto Rican batters hit safely and Puerto Rico survived a ninth-inning rally by the United States to advance to the final round of the World Baseball Classic in Los Angeles. Team USA had home runs from Buster Posey and Captain America, Adam Jones, but could not slow down the Puerto Rican juggernaut that has won five straight in the Classic.
Seth Lugo got Puerto Rico off to a good start with a 1-2-3 first, and his offence came out swinging and backed him up with six consecutive hits against Marcus Stroman. The hit parade came in quick succession and could have continued had Yadier Molina not been thrown at third base on Eddie Rosario’s sacrifice fly to score the fourth run of the frame.
The Stars and Stripes started chipping away immediately, however, as Nolan Arenado ripped a double into the left field corner to start the second and Eric Hosmer added his team-leading fifth RBI on a single to centre. A walk to Buster Posey put two on, and it looked like a slugfest might be on the way, but Lugo induced a perfect double play ball that Francisco Lindor took care of himself.
Neither side got anything going in the third and fourth, but Posey gave Team USA some hope with a four-bagger to left centre in the fifth. An inning later, Jones blasted his own roundtripper and, suddenly, it was a one-run game.
Puerto Rico padded its lead in the latter half of the sixth without the benefit of a hit. Mychal Givens plunked Javier Báez, who immediately swiped second and Givens went to a 3-0 count on Eddie Rosario before USA manager Jim Leyland swapped him for Andrew Miller. It was ball four from Miller, though, who got the next two batters to look at strike three, and it appeared the U.S. would escape the threat. Instead, a grounder that pulled in Arenado at third turned into a two-base, two-run error and what would prove to be the deciding runs.
Both teams traded zeroes in the seventh and eighth, and it looked like Puerto Rico would coast to the victory. Edwin Díaz was summoned to close out the game, but walked Arenado to start, and then gave up a hit to Hosmer.
With no outs, Díaz buckled down and struck out Posey and Paul Goldschmidt, but Brandon Crawford stroked a ball the opposite way that saw Ángel Pagán jump over a sliding Kiké Hernández at the fence. Pagán hurled the ball in, but a hustling Crawford just beat the throw for a triple.
In a game of which Puerto Rico always seemed to be charge, the score was suddenly 6-5, and up stepped Josh Harrison. Díaz, dealing heat just shy of 100 mph, showed why he is closing at age 22, getting Harrison swinging to end the game.
“There was quite a bit of pressure. After this tournament, I think when Edwin Diaz, when that season of Major League, he’s going to know how to handle it,” remarked Edwin Rodríguez, Puerto Rico’s manager, after the game. “We had the best of each one of our players, and every one of them, especially the young ones after this Classic, they’re going to become much better players. One day they’re actually confronting the best of the best, and they knew they had to execute those pitches.”
Puerto Rico was led by its grizzled veteran Carlos Beltrán and young star, Carlos Correa, each of whom had a pair of hits and scored a run. No other player reached base more than once.
“This is a great experience. I think right now the fact that we got together as a team and went out there and played the game hard and with passion, with love, with the responsibility of representing our country,” commented Beltrán. “This is an unbelievable win for us. The fact that we get the opportunity to go to the finals in L.A. really means a lot to us.”
Immediately after celebrating on the field, the Puerto Rican team grabbed flags and raced as a team to the first base stands and cheered its exuberant fan contingent, lingering to sing and dance in one of the most touching moments of the tournament.
“Nothing compares to this moment right now, playing for my home country, being able to represent Puerto Rico and be able to bring a lot of joy and happiness to the people back home that are going through a tough time right now,” expounded Correa.
The United States lost despite a pair of hits from its four and five hitters, Arenado and Hosmer, and 3 1/3 shutout innings from its bullpen. Stroman suffered the loss, though he was excellent after the first inning. He came out of the game after 4 2/3 frames having surrendered four runs on eight hits and a walk, striking out two.
Lugo earned the win after tossing 5 2/3 innings, the most for any pitcher at this WBC, scattering five hits and a walk while giving up three runs. The Mets’ rookie walked one and struck out two and did exactly what Rodríguez had hoped for being the game: “Five or six innings, then the bullpen will take care of it.” While it was a little rockier than anticipated, Álex Claudio, Joseph Cólon, and Díaz closed out the game.
“And not only winning, but also the quality of the team that we’ve been beating. I mean, we faced Dominican, we faced Venezuela, we faced United States. I mean, quality teams. We’ve been beating those teams. So we feel very confident going to L.A. right now.”
Puerto Rico will await the winner of the Dominican Republic and the United States tomorrow to determine its matchup in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, it will have a short rest before playing Venezuela at 12:30 PDT (8:30 p.m. GMT) tomorrow to finish Pool F play. In the evening, the D.R. and Team USA showdown for the final spot at Dodger Stadium will commence at 7 p.m. (3 a.m. GMT). Extra Innings will have live coverage of both games, press conferences, photos, and more tomorrow @extrainnings_bb.