MIAMI -- When the powers that be drew up the brackets in the World Baseball Classic, they must have been hoping for this marquee clash of the tournament: Team USA vs. the Dominican Republic at Marlins Park on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET.
R.A. Dickey will be on the mound for the Americans and Samuel Deduno for the Dominicans.
The winner will secure a spot in the semifinals at San Francisco's AT&T Park, either against two-time defending Classic champion Japan on Sunday or the Kingdom of the Netherlands on Monday. The loser will play Puerto Rico here on Friday at 7 p.m. to determine the second survivor from Pool 2.
The championship contest is Tuesday in San Francisco. All the games will be broadcast in the U.S. by MLB Network and ESPN Deportes. But none of them has been more anticipated than the U.S. vs. the D.R.
More than 30,000 fans are expected for the showdown. Marlins Park officials are anticipating a large walk-up crowd. Tickets are available at www.worldbaseballclassic.com.
"We expect it to be a good game," Team USA manager Joe Torre said on Wednesday morning. "You've got two teams that are talented. I was here for most of the game yesterday, and obviously you could just see the passion on that bench over there, especially when they'd fallen behind and they started climbing back in their win over Italy. They don't lack confidence. And our ballclub maybe is not as animated, but every bit as confident and determined as they are."
It's the first time the two countries will meet on the field in this tournament, which is in its third edition. Both teams are trying to win the event for the first time. Neither has ascended any farther than the semifinals.
The Dominicans lost to Cuba at San Diego's Petco Park in the 2006 semifinals, and this time they are trying to avenge their ouster in the first round four years ago, when they lost twice to the Dutch. The U.S. didn't make it out of the second round in 2006, losing the decisive game to Mexico, and in '09 it lost a semifinal match to the Japanese at Dodger Stadium.
The teams have faced each other four times previously in other international tournaments, with the U.S holding a 3-1 advantage.
No matter the hype about his team and the huge expectations, Dominican manager Tony Pena said there's a good reason the U.S. is the team to beat.
"Well, because it is," said Pena, an acolyte of Torre as a coach in New York when Torre managed the Yankees. "The United States is the best team. This ballclub is deep, deep, deep, offensively and pitching wise. Whoever said Dominican is the favorite, great. We feel good about ourselves, but they don't have to beat us, we have to beat them. We don't have to say we are the best team. What we say is that we believe in ourselves."
The D.R. is 4-0 thus far in the tournament and the U.S. is 3-1, having won three in a row after Dickey lost to Mexico, 5-2, on Friday night in the opener. The Dominicans have a powerful offense and a stocked bullpen. Pena said he'll have veteran Miguel Tejada in the lineup to face Dickey and his knuckleball. So far through four games, Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano is 12-for-19 (.632) with two homers, four doubles, seven RBIs, five runs scored and 22 total bases.
For the U.S., like the Mexico game, Dickey's new Blue Jays teammate J.P. Arencibia again will be behind the plate. Torre said Joe Mauer will be the designated hitter. Mets third baseman David Wright is 7-for-16 (.438) with a game-winning grand slam, two doubles, 10 RBIs, four runs scored and 12 total bases, earning him the new nickname "Captain America." The U.S. bullpen is equally deep, and the Americans have the edge in starting pitching.
The Americans are going with Dickey, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, and will have Ross Detwiler in the wings. The Nationals left-hander pitched four shutout innings of one-hit ball in relief Saturday night in a 6-2 win over Italy. If Dickey's knuckleball is again flat, as it was against Mexico when he allowed an Adrian Gonzalez two-run homer and the Mexicans to take an early 4-0, lead, Torre will certainly go quickly to the 'pen.
Dickey said he doesn't anticipate a repeat performance from his trademark knuckler.
"It's not unlike the regular season, when sometimes you struggle for an outing and you get it back for four or five days later," Dickey said. "But you can only go off how you felt on that day. For instance, I felt strong. I felt good. And so I anticipate it not being an issue. It would be different if I couldn't throw a strike with it or if I was mechanically a mess, but none of those were the case. I felt pretty good."
In contrast, the right-handed Deduno is primarily a middle-inning reliever with the Twins. He made one start for the D.R. in Puerto Rico on Saturday and threw four shutout innings of four-hit ball, picking up the win in a 6-3 victory over Spain.
Strapped by the same Spring Training-type constraints as Torre, Pena said he's going with Deduno instead of Pirates left-hander Wandy Rodriguez because Deduno is pitching on his regular cycle.
"Deduno is on his fifth day," Pena said. "Wandy is not scheduled to pitch tomorrow. He has one less day than Deduno. We cannot use a starter on less than his scheduled [amount of] days."
If the Dominicans lose on Thursday, they'll have Rodriguez ready to go on Friday. The U.S. isn't making any pitching plans beyond its next game, pitching coach Greg Maddux said on Wednesday.
And what a next game it's projected to be.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.