In the three-time history of the World Baseball Classic, Thursday night's tilt between the United States and Dominican Republic was arguably the biggest game of them all. The winner advanced to the championship round, the loser needs to beat Puerto Rico to get there as well.
Who would've though it would be Craig Kimbrel to hand the Dominicans their ticket to San Francisco?
As unlikely as it seems, the Dominicans scored two runs in the top of the ninth to crack open a 1-1 tie, and Fernando Rodney put the exclamation point on a thrilling 3-1 victory. Team USA is now back in action on Friday looking to stay alive.
R.A. Dickey was handed the ball to start this one, and he looked as sharp as can be in getting the Dominicans in order, striking out Robinson Cano for the final out. It was a complete turnaround from his start last Friday against Mexico, where he scuffled over four shaky innings.
Team USA came to bat knowing they'd be without the services of "Captain America" David Wright, who was a late scratch with sore ribs. However, Brandon Phillips and Joe Mauer each singled to get things going. With two outs, Miami's own Giancarlo Stanton hit an infield single to short, as Mauer was just able to beat the soft toss to second.
With the bases loaded, the US was in a great spot to unravel Dominican starter Samuel Deduno, who obviously doesn't have the pitching credentials of someone like Dickey (not that many people do). Eric Hosmer worked a walk to force a run in. Adam Jones, on the other hand, struck out looking at a breaking ball, and the US again failed to really capitalize with runners on.
The Dominicans got that run right back in the second. Hanley Ramirez absolutely unloaded on a solo homer to left measured at 451 feet to make it 1-1. If he swings the bat that well during the season, then hopefully I'll still be doing Dodger recaps deep into October.
This game looked like either offense could take off at any point, but for the next six innings not a single run was scored. Dickey ended up going five strong for one run and four strikeouts. Deduno made a name for himself by K'ing seven over four innings of impressive work. Basically, the US had their chance to KO him early, but couldn't get the job done.
Off to the ninth we went, where Joe Torre correctly inserted Kimbrel to keep the score even. He did what just about any smart manager would do in this situation. Considering that Kimbrel's 2012 saw him record 42 saves with a 1.01 ERA, you would think that even with the Dominicans' powerful lineup, they'd be silenced.
So it was definitely a shocker to watch Nelson Cruz double on the first pitch he saw. That more than revved up an already raucous crowd, and Carlos Santana had a good at-bat by getting him over to third on a groundout.
Erik Aybar's at-bat was probably even more impressive when you factor in an absolutely horrendous strike two call by umpire Angel Hernandez. His RBI single to right made it 2-1. An out later, with Aybar on second from a steal, Jose Reyes brought home another run with an RBI single, chasing Kimbrel in the process. Mitchell Boggs got the last out.
As if things weren't bleak enough watching the game's best closer give up two runs and Wright being hurt, the US had their bottom part of the order due up against Rodney in the ninth. Jones continued his rough night by flying out. Pinch-hitters Ben Zobrist and Shane Victorino couldn't do any better, and that was that.
Miami isn't exactly known for having the game's best baseball fans. I keep thinking back to a tweet that went out a few weeks ago that showed just a few people (if that) standing in line when single-game tickets went on sale for the Marlins. But make no mistake about it, these fans were awesome from the start, and really added to the energy of the game. I could've done without that damn horn the whole game, but still, it sure was fun to watch.
Now the US finds themselves in a must-win situation... again. The good news is that they've been down this road before, as they needed W's over Italy and Canada last week just to get to this point. The bad news is that Puerto Rico just ousted Italy in comeback fashion, and even though they dropped a big one on Tuesday against the Americans, they do have some momentum going for them.
Ryan Vogelsong will take the hill for the US, while Puerto Rico counters with Nelson Figueroa.