America’s national pastime will once again crown an outsider as its king.
Led by a 38-year-old journey man starting pitcher and a 31-year-old minor leaguer who took his last big-league swings with the Marlins in 2009, underdog Puerto Rico sent the mighty United States packing from the World Baseball Classic on Friday night with a stunning 4-3 upset in front of 19,762 fans at Marlins Park.
It’s the second time since the tournament began in 2006 that the U.S. team will not advance to the semifinal round, which it will host for the third time beginning Sunday in San Francisco.
For Puerto Rico, which lost to the Americans 7-1 when Round 2 action began on Tuesday, Friday’s victory secured the island’s first trip to the semifinal round and served as sweet redemption for the 2009 WBC when the Americans rallied to a 6-5 victory in Round 2 to send them home from the tournament.
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This time there was no ninth-inning comeback for the USA.
J.C. Romero, who was on the mound in the ninth in the previous USA rally in 2009, retired the final four hitters he faced to pick up the save. First, he got Adam Jones to chase a high tailing fastball outside the zone for strike three. Then he struck out Shane Victorino looking and got Jimmy Rollins to fly out to center to end the game. Victorino and Rollins were Romero’s teammates when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008.
After trimming Puerto Rico’s lead to 4-2 on Ryan Braun’s RBI double down the third-base line in the eighth, the U.S. team loaded the bases with one out for Giancarlo Stanton. But the Marlins’ young All-Star popped a 3-2 pitch to shallow left for an out. After a two-out walk by Ben Zobrist made it 4-3, Romero got Plantation American Heritage grad Eric Hosmer to ground to second to end the inning.
Nelson Figueroa, who hadn’t pitched in the majors since May 9, 2011, when he had an 8.69 ERA with the Houston Astros, was the big hero for Puerto Rico. He tossed six scoreless innings of two-hit ball against an American lineup featuring eight current or former All-Stars.
Although his fastball never got higher than 88 mph, Figueroa, who spent last season in Triple A with the Red Sox and Yankees, only gave up hits to Jimmy Rollins and Brandon Phillips before the Puerto Rican bullpen took over with a 4-0 lead in the seventh.
After Mike Aviles’ RBI single in the top of the first gave Puerto Rico an early 1-0 lead, American starter Ryan Vogelsong, a hero for the Giants on the run to the World Series last October, kept the Puerto Rican lineup in check. But after getting Yadier Molina to fly out to center for the second out in the sixth inning, manager Joe Torre decided to bring in Indians right-hander Vinnie Pestano with a runner on. Aviles promptly singled to right and after Alex Rios walked on four pitches, Pestano let a 1-2 count get away from him against Carlos Rivera and walked in a run.
Trailing 2-0 and with the bases loaded, Torre stuck with Pestano and Andy Gonzalez, who went 1 for 12 with the Marlins at the plate back in 2009, made him pay.
Gonzalez ripped a Pestrano 0-2 offering to base of the left-field wall, knocking in two more runs to make it 4-0.
The Americans finally answered with a run in the seventh inning when Joe Mauer tripled and scored on Stanton’s RBI single to left with one out. But after the U.S. team put runners on first and second, Red Sox minor-league reliever Jose De La Torre struck out Jones looking to end the inning.
Now, while team USA and its roster laden with All-Stars heads back to spring training, the Puerto Ricans will get a rematch with the other team that came with them from the Caribbean — the Dominican Republic.
The teams will meet Saturday afternoon at Marlins Park to decide seeding for the semifinal round in San Francisco. Two-time defending champion Japan and the Netherlands are waiting for them.
Pirates left-hander Wandy Rodriguez will start for the Dominicans on Saturday. Puerto Rico has yet to name its starter.