The World Baseball Classic finally got the dream matchup it was hoping for — and the game certainly lived up to the hype.
With 34,366 flag-waving, drum-beating, horn-sounding fans roaring at Marlins Park, the Dominican Republic scored two runs off closer Craig Kimbrel in the ninth to knock off the United States 3-1 and clinch a trip to the semifinal round in San Francisco.
Pinch-hitter Erick Aybar, who nearly jumped down the throat of home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez when he called a pitch that appeared way outside the zone for strike two, drilled a single to right field off a drawn-in infield, scoring Nelson Cruz with the go-ahead run and setting off a wild celebration.
“I’ve never had this much fun,” said former Marlin Jose Reyes who added to the Dominican lead when he stroked a two-out single to center, scoring Aybar, who had stolen second base.
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“When I saw the ball go for a base hit, I was jumping like a little kid. We know when we saw Kimbrel it wasn’t going to be easy to score some runs. But when Nelson Cruz started that inning with a double that got the dugout with a lot of emotion, and we were able to scratch some runs. It wasn’t easy, but we were able to get it done.”
The last time Kimbrel, the National League leader in saves the past two years, had given up more than one run in a game was Sept. 19, 2011.
The Dominican bullpen, meanwhile, pitched five scoreless innings of relief and allowed just one American hit — a Joe Mauer eighth-inning single — before Fernando Rodney came in and picked up his fifth save of the tournament in the ninth.
“It feels like October, not March,” Kimbrel said of the loud conditions inside Marlins Park, which had the retractable roof closed because of windy conditions. “We lost tonight. I did not do my job. All we can do as a team is put this behind us, come out [Friday] and beat Puerto Rico.”
The United States, which beat Puerto Rico 7-1 on Tuesday, can still clinch the second berth in the semifinals with a win Friday. With a loss, though, they stay home. Giants right-hander Ryan Vogelsong will start for the Americans.
The Dominicans await the winner of that game Saturday, a game that will decide seeding in the semifinal round.
“People thought we weren’t going to be as good because we didn’t have as many big names, but we’re a better team this time around,” said Rodney, who retired Adam Jones and pinch-hitters Ben Zobrist and Shane Victorino to end the game.
“We didn’t come to disrespect anybody,” Rodney said of the Dominicans wild postgame celebration. “It’s just the way we play. If they don’t understand it, just go to the Dominican and see it.”
Before the late-inning heroics set off the Dominican party, a collection of 21 All-Stars and 47 major-leaguers suited up for the teams and put on a show in front of the fourth-largest crowd in the Little Havana park’s two-year history.
The U.S. team took a 1-0 lead on the first after Brandon Phillips, Mauer and Giancarlo Stanton each singled to load the bases. Former Plantation American Heritage standout Eric Hosmer drew a walk to force in a run. But the Americans left the bases loaded when Jones struck out looking.
Former Marlin Hanley Ramirez tied the score at 1 in the second with a line-drive home run off R.A. Dickey that landed just above The Clevelander in left field.
The pitching staffs were in control from there.
Dominican starting pitcher Samuel Deduno gave up five hits over four innings but baffled American hitters with his breaking ball, striking out seven in all. Dickey tossed five innings, giving up five hits with one walk and four strikeouts.
Jones singled to lead off the fourth and stole second with one out. But Deduno worked his way out of trouble by striking out Willie Bloomquist and Jimmy Rollins. The Americans had only two runners reach base after that.
Pena went with hard-throwing Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera in the fifth and sixth. He was hitting 98 mph on the radar gun while retiring six in a row. Octavio Dotel pitched a 1-2-3 seventh before Mauer finally broke through with the Americans’ first hit since the fourth inning, a single off Pedro Strop.
Marlins closer Steve Cishek entered the game with runners on first and second and two outs in the seventh and retired Miguel Tejada to end the threat with a bouncer to the mound. He then pitched a scoreless eighth.
The Americans played without their RBI leader and hero for the first four games — Mets third baseman David Wright. He was scratched minutes before the game because of discomfort in his rib area, a decision reached jointly by the Mets and USA Baseball.
Wright will leave for the Mets’ spring training home in Port St. Lucie after the game to be examined by team doctors on Friday.
“I’m optimistic they will allow me to come back and rejoin the team,” Wright said. “I’m disappointed. I think that goes without saying.”