Gio Gonzalez made more than just the city of Hialeah proud Tuesday night.
Pitching in his hometown and in a situation the two-time All-Star called a dream come true, the 27-year old left-hander guided the United States past Puerto Rico 7-1 and within a victory of reaching the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic.
Gonzalez, who finished third in the National League Cy Young voting and led all of baseball with 21 wins last season, tossed five scoreless innings, scattered three hits and struck out five as the United States played with an early lead for the first time since entering the tournament and protected it.
“Gio set the tone early coming out there and absolutely just shoving. He got us in the dugout quick,” said third baseman David Wright, who drove in five runs Tuesday -- including a bases-clearing double in the eighth that finally provided some breathing room.
“We just kept putting runners on base and putting ourselves in at-bats with runners in scoring position. It’s building that momentum, and obviously Gio started that.”
Wright, who leads the Americans with 10 RBI in the tournament, came to bat with the bases loaded three times Tuesday. But it wasn’t until the eighth, when he smacked a 2-2 slider from Xavier Cedeno just out of reach Angel Pagan in center to plate three runs that the U.S. was in complete control.
That’s something they didn’t experience at all in Round 1 after opening the tournament with a loss to Mexico. But now they’ve got it here, along with a chance to clinch a spot in the semifinals in San Francisco if they can knock off the unbeaten Dominican Republic on Thursday night.
“[We] don't have to play differently, but [we] can play with a different mentality,” said Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, who returned home to cheers and picked up his first two hits of the tournament. “It's not always like if we don't get the job done with runners in scoring position, dang that could have been our last chance.”
The seventh-largest crowd ever at Marlins Park -- 32,872 fans -- made the U.S. feel at home. Well, everyone except former closer Heath Bell. He was booed during player introductions.
Stanton got his loudest cheers when he made a beautiful over-the-shoulder catch on the run near the wall in right field, which saved a run in the fourth inning. Adam Jones chased another 400-foot fly ball off the bat of Carlos Beltran to the warning track in the first to save another run.
“I know that gap better than anybody,” Stanton said. “I know you can't give up on a ball that's smoked over there.”
The U.S. flashed more leather in the sixth. Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt fielded a hot shot to the box by Alex Rios and fired a strike to Brandon Phillips at second base, who turned the double play with a throw to first on one knee. Phillips, a three-time Gold Glove winner, pounded his chest and pointed at Affeldt after the play was over.
“I don’t think you guys saw that last double play when he batted the ball over to [Jimmy Rollins],” left fielder Ryan Braun said. “Phillips is a fun guy to play with. “
As good as the pitching and defense was for the Americans, the bats struggled to deliver in clutch situations early. After Joe Mauer doubled home Braun in the first inning to give the Americans a 1-0 lead, the U.S. managed to only scratch across a run in the third and the fifth innings despite having the bases loaded and less than two outs in both situations.