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.
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“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.
First baseman Eric Hosmer, a standout at American Heritage in Plantation and Marlins fan as a child, singled, stole a base and scored to make it 4-0 in the seventh on Jones' two out single to center.
Marlins closer Steve Cishek, who came on in the eighth, got charged with the only earned run of the night for team USA's pitching staff. He started the inning by plunking pinch-hitter Jesus Feliciano and was quickly yanked by manager Joe Torre. David Hernandez came on in relief and gave up a double to Eddie Rosario.
But with runners on second and third and nobody out, Puerto Rico was only able to score once on Angel Pagan's groundout to short. Hernandez struck out Irving Falu and then got Alex Rios to pop up a 3-1 pitch to first to end the threat.
Puerto Rico will now face Italy in an elimination game Wednesday.
“The enthusiasm is high,” Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said. “The boys are committed.”
Dominicans rally past Italy, 5-4
They chanted for Hanley Ramirez, roared for Jose Reyes and bounced up and down while banging drums, honking horns and blowing on their vuvuzelas.
In the end, the large contingent of Dominicans who made up the crowd of 14,482 at Marlins Park got what they wanted — a 5-4 come-from-behind win over Italy to open the second round of the World Baseball Classic.
“They look weak on paper, but whenever you go between those two white lines, you don’t know what you’re going to get,” said Dominican Republic manager Tony Pena of the Italians who took a four-run lead after a disastrous opening frame for starter Edinson Volquez. He walked the first three batters and gave up a three-run home run to Twins minor-leaguer Chris Colabello, a player who spent six seasons in the Canadian-American Association of Professional Baseball.
"That has to be the toughest game we played in the WBC."
The Dominican Republic rallied with solo home runs from Reyes and Robinson Cano and then scratched across three runs in the seventh off Italy’s bullpen — the go-ahead hit came on a broken-bat single by Rangers All-Star outfielder Nelson Cruz — to remain unbeaten in the tournament.
Five Dominican relievers combined to record the final 14 outs while allowing only one hit. Closer Fernando Rodney, one of seven All-Stars on the Dominican’s 28-man roster, recorded the final three outs for the save, his fourth of the tournament. Rodney, who has yet to give up a hit in the WBC, celebrated the game-ending double play like he did all 48 of his saves with the Rays last season — by shooting a make-believe arrow into the sky.
Up next: Thursday’s winner’s bracket game against either the United States or Puerto Rico, who met at 8 p.m. Tuesday. The winner of that game clinches a trip to the WBC semifinals at San Francisco’s AT&T Park. The loser has to keep fighting to survive in the double-elimination round.
Italy, the surprise of Round 1 in Phoenix and a team with only six major-leaguers on its roster, will meet the loser of USA-Puerto Rico, who both went 2-1 in the first round, Wednesday night.
“Our team never lowered our heads,” said Reyes, the former Marlins shortstop who brought his bench and the Dominican crowd to its feet in the third inning when he hooked a line drive solo home run inside the right-field foul pole. “They could have put up 50 runs, and we would not have lowered our heads.”
Reyes was one of the few Dominicans who was able to figure out Italy starter Tiago Da Silva. The 27-year-old right-hander whose bio says he led San Marino to the Italian League pennant with a 9-1 record and 2.49 ERA in 2012, scattered five hits over 5 1/3 innings and finally got pulled when Cano trimmed Italy’s lead in half with a towering solo shot to right-center field in the sixth.
Italy’s bullpen got out of trouble in the sixth, but Reyes got the Dominicans rolling with a one-out single in the seventh. Two batters later, Italy shortstop Anthony Granato had Cano’s softly hit shallow fly ball to left glance off his glove, and the bases were loaded.
Italy manager Marco Mazzieri brought in left-hander Luca Panerati. But none of the four pitches he threw to Edwin Encarnacion was called a strike by home plate umpire Angel Hernandez. Panerati left the field in disgust. "At least two of those four pitches were very close to the zone," Mazzieri said.
Ramirez, who had fans chanting his name maybe louder than he ever heard while when he was in a Marlins uniform, tied the score at 4 moments later when he hit a sacrifice fly to center off Brian Sweeney. Cruz then followed that by sending a 1-1 pitch into right field, scoring Cano from third.
“It’s a different style the way we play here than we play in New York,” Cano said trying to explain the excitement and celebration on the field by the Dominicans after he scored. “Here you get to be ... something you never see in the big leagues.”
Cano, the most valuable player of the first round in Puerto Rico, is 12 for 19 in the tournament. He has had three hits in every game of the tournament.
“That’s not what I have in mind, to think of any record or anything like that,” said Cano when told his dozen hits are the most in Dominican WBC history. “My interest is to win.”