US, Puerto Rico meet in must-win rematch
Teams face off three days after American victory for right to go to semis
MIAMI -- As the great Yogi Berra would say: "It's a deja vu all over again."
For the second time in the last two World Baseball Classics, the U.S. will face Puerto Rico in an elimination game, this time to advance to the semifinals at AT&T Park in San Francisco. In 2009, the U.S. won and came out of the Miami bracket with Venezuela and went to Dodger Stadium.
This time, the Americans will try to move on by again defeating P.R. on Friday at 7 p.m. ET at Marlins Park on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes. The winner will play against the Dominican Republic on Saturday to determine who will face two-time defending Classic winner Japan on Sunday or the Kingdom of the Netherlands on Monday in San Francisco.
It will be Ryan Vogelsong for the U.S. against Nelson Figueroa for Puerto Rico in a battle of veteran right-handers.
"I've been here before, a couple times in the postseason last year and once already in the Classic in Arizona," said Vogelsong, who played for the World Series-winning Giants club that came from way behind in 2012 to win the first two rounds of the playoffs. "So I know what it's like. Same as always, I'll go out and execute as many pitches as possible."
Vogelsong started for the U.S. this past Saturday night against Italy at Chase Field, a night after his club lost the opener to Mexico. Vogelsong pitched into the fifth inning, allowing two runs on six hits and earned the win in a 6-2 U.S. victory.
In 2009, the U.S. lost its first match in the second round to Puerto Rico, 11-1. This year, the U.S. defeated Puerto Rico, 7-1, here on Tuesday night in a game in which Gio Gonzalez dominated and David Wright knocked in five runs. Also in 2009, the U.S. barely beat Puerto Rico, 6-5, in the elimination game on a ninth-inning, two-run, walk-off single to right field by Wright at Dolphin Stadium, located about a half-hour north of the new ballpark nestled in the famous Little Havana neighborhood.
On Friday night, the U.S. won't have Wright, who was scratched from the starting lineup with soreness in the left-side rib cage, toward the back, just before Thursday's start of a key Pool 2 game that the U.S. wound up losing, 3-1, to the Dominican Republic.
He was to be examined in New York on Friday and his availability for the remainder of the tournament is doubtful, Team USA manager Joe Torre said.
Torre added that he doesn't expect to have Wright if the team moves on to the semifinals.
"I'm really not counting on it," Torre said. "Whatever he has is going to take more than a few days, I would think. Hopefully, that's all it is. The WBC is important, but it certainly isn't more important than making sure he's fine."
By Classic rules, the U.S. can't replace Wright on the 28-man roster until they win out of this round.
The U.S. loss to the D.R. set up another do-or-die confrontation with Puerto Rico, which scored three times in the eighth inning on Wednesday to eliminate Italy, 4-3. The Americans have already won an elimination game in this tournament, beating Canada, 9-4, to make it out of the Arizona bracket. They did that by scoring three runs in the eighth and four more in the ninth.
Asked if the U.S. might have an advantage because of its recent victory over Puerto Rico, Torre said:
"I hope so. I hope they feel that way. I don't take it for granted because we beat somebody it's automatic we're going to do that again. We'll be ready to play and hopefully we can put some runs on the board."
For the past three nights, fans have turned games here into a rocking festival as the two Latin teams have played with an uncommon amount of emotion. P.R. and D.R. players commonly came streaming out of their respective dugouts to celebrate when key runs were scored.
"There's a lot of emotion when you are playing for your nation," said Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez, who managed the Marlins for about a year in the old stadium, "regardless if it's Puerto Rico, USA or the Dominican Republic."
Rodriguez will start with the right-handed Figueroa and have lefty Giovanni Soto available in relief.
"Both are rested," Rodriguez said.
Figueroa debuted with the D-backs in 2000 and spent parts of nine seasons in the big leagues for the Phillies, Mets, Brewers, Astros and Pirates.
This may be one of his biggest games. In the first two Classics, Puerto Rico didn't make it past the second round. In 2006, the P.R. lost the deciding game to Cuba, which moved on to San Diego, and the U.S. was stopped in the second round by Mexico. And even when the U.S. did beat P.R. in 2009, it lost a semifinal game to Japan at Dodger Stadium.
It's never easy. The crowd again will have a decided Latin flavor. Team Puerto Rico will be all charged up.
"We expected that," Torre said. "We've seen how emotional those teams can be. I watched the other day when the Dominicans came back to beat Italy. I know there's passion on both sides, except it's shown a little differently."
Barry M. Bloom is 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.