While his USA teammates were busy rallying past Canada and fighting to stay alive in the World Baseball Classic on Sunday night in Phoenix, Gio Gonzalez was in his hometown at a sports bar in Hialeah, nervously munching on chicken wings and shrimp scampi and “going nuts” with every pitch.
“When [former Plantation American Heritage standout Eric] Hosmer came up with the big hit clearing the bases [in the ninth inning], that was it,” said Gonzalez, 27, who watched the game with two childhood friends in Miami Lakes.
“To be a small-town kid from Hialeah High pitching in Miami and representing Team USA, that says it all. It’s a kid’s dream. ... Don’t pinch me. I don’t want to wake up.”
A left-hander who won 21 games for the Washington Nationals last season and finished third in the National League’s Cy Young voting, Gonzalez will get to live out that once-in-a lifetime experience at 8 p.m. Tuesday when he takes the mound for United States (2-1) against Puerto Rico (2-1) at Marlins Park.
Second-round action will start earlier in the day when the unbeaten Dominican Republic (3-0) — featuring former Marlins Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez — take on surprising Italy (2-1) at 1 p.m.
Both players grinned for reporters Monday and said they were happy to be playing in Miami again after their team workout, even though they were both initially surprised and disappointed to be traded away.
“The fans here showed me a lot of love,” Reyes said. “I’m not going to play for the Miami Marlins anymore, but I’m glad to be back here so they can see me one more time.”
Said Ramirez: “Since we came into the stadium the workers are really happy, and that gives us great happiness, that support that we’ve always had from there is still there.”
Padres right-hander Edinson Volquez will start for the Dominicans against Italy’s Tiago Da Silva, who went 9-1 with a 2.49 ERA with San Marino of the Italian Baseball League.
“If you read those lineups, you get scared,” Italy’s manager Marco Mazzieri said of the three opposing teams in the pool that feature a combined 24 All-Stars. “You don’t want to really think about that too much.”
The last time he pitched at Marlins Park with Washington, Gonzalez had his own cheering section. A group of about 600 family members and friends supported the kid who helped lead Hialeah High to two state titles before getting drafted by the White Sox in the first round in 2004.
This time, though, Gonzalez isn’t pitching in for those tickets. “I learned my lesson; no more tickets,” he said. “That’s it. If you guys want to watch, it’s either on TV or come and support over here, give us a little love.”
The United States could use some support to get off to a better start. The Americans have fallen behind in all three of their WBC games so far. While 11 relievers have combined for an ERA of 1.93 in the tournament, USA’s three starters R.A. Dickey (9.00 ERA in four innings), Ryan Vogelsong (4.50 ERA in four innings) and Derek Holland (3.60 ERA in five innings) have a combined 6.00 ERA.
Gonzalez, who remained with the National League East Division champions and made his third start of the spring while Team USA was out west for its first three games in pool play, is hoping to fare better and make the most of the 80 pitches all pitchers are limited to in Round 2.
“You don’t want to save your bullets,” Gonzalez said. “You want to save up that bullpen, go as deep in the game as you can.”
Right-hander Mario Santiago, who has a 36-51 record in seven minor-league seasons and has never made the majors, will pitch for Puerto Rico. He said he will take his cues from Cardinals All-Star catcher Yadier Molina.
“I’ll follow the best catcher in the world,” Santiago said. “He’ll put his fingers down, and I’ll follow him. Whatever he asks for, that’s what I’m going to pitch.”