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WBC: USA Advances to Final Round

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This morning, I woke to two games recorded on the DVR. Both the Twins and the USA-Puerto Rico games were on MLB Network. A conundrum...what to watch? I chose the WBC. USA with our backs against the wall: go on to California for the semifinals or go home. I have to say, what a ballgame! Unfortunately, judging by the empty seats in Dolphin Stadium (seriously, is that stadium ever full for baseball?), not nearly enough people saw the game in person.

You can Wright it down, USA is in semis

Recap and stars of the game follow the jump.

 

Down 1-0 due to an Alex Rios bomb off US starter Ted Lilly, the US clawed back with two runs in the bottom of the second off Puerto Rico starter Jonathan Sanchez. A David Wright walk, stolen base and great headfirst slide at home combined with a clutch Shane Victorino single to put the US up 2-1 after the second inning. Kevin Youkilis crushed a hanging slider in the third to make it 3-1 and chase Sanchez from the game.

We were cruising until the wheels came off Ted Lilly in the 4th. Pudge Rodriguez walked to lead off the inning. Carlos Delgago tied the game at 3 with shot to straightaway center, just out of the outstretched glove of Victorino. Where's Torii when we need him?.

The game remained tied at 3 due to spectacular plays by Carlos Beltran (robbing McCann of a HR) and Brian Roberts (diving in the hole). In the 6th, walks caught up to the US pitchers again, when a shaky Heath Bell walked Pudge on four pitches, none of them close, to lead off the inning. Carlos Beltran bunted Pudge to second, and after another walk to Delgado, an Alex Rios single put Puerto Rico ahead 4-3. Fortunately, Scot Shields relieved Bell, got the US out of a jam, and proceeded to pitch a perfect 7th.

Meanwhile, the Puerto Rico bullpen dominated the middle innings. Nelson Figueroa and Javier Lopez combined for 3.1 perfect innings. Pedro Feliciano, Saul Rivera and JC Romero (still playing since his suspension doesn't take effect until the MLB season) got out of jams in the 7th and 8th, and it all came down to the 9th. Again, walks caught up to US pitchers (cue the "walks will haunt" graphic), with Jonathan Broxton walked Felipe Lopez to lead off the 9th (although I have no idea what the umpire was thinking calling a 2-2 pitch right down main street a ball...). After Broxton settled down, getting a couple outs, Ramon Vazquez grounded a ball up the middle, just out of the reach of Jeter and his limited range.  Puerto Rico up 5-3 going to the bottom of the 9th. Three outs away from the semifinals.

Fortunately for the US, JC Romero is (was?) Puerto Rico's closer. Seriously, there's no better closer available? Puerto Rico has about 20 of the greatest catchers in the world (half named Molina), but no closers. I digress... Also fortunately for the US, we had our national version of the "pirahnas" (except with real bite, unlike the Twins version) coming up in the 9th. Shane Victorino led off with a single to right field. Brian Roberts singled up the middle, Victorino advancing to third after a bobble in the infield left the ball in "no man's land" near the mound with no defenders nearby. First and third, no one out. The crowd was beginning to get excited (US) and anxious (PR). After a tense, long battle, Derek Jeter lined a frozen rope right at Alex Rios in RF. One out.

An obviously hurting Jimmy Rollins (quite sick before the game) came to the plate against Romero when a gamble paid off. The US had been stealing bases at will against Geovany Soto all game (3 in the first 5 innings), but Puerto Rico brought in Yadier Molina to shut down the running game. Brian Roberts got a good jump off Romero and barely beat a good throw right on the bag by Molina. In fact, if the throw hadn't handcuffed Felipe Lopez, Roberts is out and the game may have turned out quite differently. Second and third. Romero pitches around Rollins, and Jose Oquendo finally turns to the bullpen to save the day. Unfortunately, the best PR could offer was Fernando Cabrera. Youkilis, again the "Greek God of Walks" walked in a run, bringing up David Wright. By this point, Wright was 2 for 3 with a walk, but he was not making very good contact and his swing looked long and slow. But, he came through, chasing an ankle high pitch and dumping it down the line in right. Game over, let the celebration begin, even though it's a little strange seeing David Wright and Jimmy Rollins celebrating at home plate...

Stars of the game:

*** David Wright. 3-4, walk, SB, run scored. Managed to find a way to get it done.

** Brian Roberts. Great defensive play, sac bunt and stolen base put the US in position to win the game in the 9th.

* Jimmy Rollins. Gutsy performance, stealing two bases and scoring the winning run.

Some thoughts:

- I don't like the US strategy of scheduling one inning each for our bullpen after Lilly left the game. At this point, too many of our relievers are shaking off the rust, we almost expect to have two or three bad innings out of the bullpen each game.

- Injuries have really taken a toll on this team, with Chipper, Braun, Pedroia and Matt Lindstrom out since the start. Nice to have Mark DeRosa and his versatility in LF to replace Braun.

- I really like the double elimination format for the tournament. Way too many off days though.

Now three of four semifinalists are set. The US and Venezuela play tonight for the third time to determine a pool winner. Both teams are through to the final round. The last semifinalist remains to be determined tonight, as Cuba and Japan square off in an elimination game. I plan to watch. Will you?