Aybar's clutch hit sends DR past US, into semis
Americans forced into elimination game after Kimbrel allows two runs in ninth
MIAMI -- The Dominican Republic is in the final four of the World Baseball Classic and Team USA has one more chance.
And outside Marlins Park on Thursday night, salsa continued to play long after Erick Aybar came off the bench in the ninth inning to drive home Nelson Cruz with a pinch-hit single off Craig Kimbrel that sent the D.R. to a 3-1 victory over the U.S.
"I thank God," Dominican manager Tony Pena said afterward, choking back tears. "I feel so emotional because this team has hung together since the first day. I don't think I'll ever again have a group of young men with the dedication, with the dignity in which they have represented our country."
There's still much more to come. The 5-0 Dominicans are 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 Americans play Puerto Rico here on Friday at 7 p.m. ET to determine the second survivor from Pool 2.
Seeding for the pool will be decided in a 1 p.m. game here on Saturday. The top seed plays the Dutch, who have never advanced this far in the tournament, and the second seed faces the Japanese.
The championship contest is Tuesday at San Francisco. All the games are scheduled to be broadcast in the U.S. by MLB Network and ESPN Deportes.
The U.S. faced an elimination game this past Sunday at Chase Field in Phoenix and came from behind to beat Canada and advance to the second round. If you're looking for silver linings, the Americans already defeated Puerto Rico, 7-1, here on Tuesday night.
This time, it will be Ryan Vogelsong starting for the U.S. against Nelson Figueroa for P.R.
Team USA manager Joe Torre, who has faced his share of elimination games not only in this temporary job but in 12 years of managing the Yankees, said the Americans know what is in store for them.
"We've done this before and I really don't have to tell them anything," Torre said, after his team managed only six hits against five D.R. pitchers, all of them singles, only three of them coming after the first inning. "It was a tough game tonight and they beat our closer. There's not much you can say. There was tough pitching on both sides. I mean, I'm not going to have to talk to our guys. They came ready to play and they continue to play hard."
Beginning with starter R.A. Dickey, four U.S. pitchers held the Dominicans to six hits and a 1-1 tie when Kimbrel took the mound for the top of the ninth inning. The Atlanta closer had gone the entire 2012 season without allowing two runs or two hits in any of his 63 appearances. He wound up allowing two runs and three hits to the D.R.
In the big ninth-inning rally, Cruz opened with a double to right and then went to third on a Carlos Santana groundout. Aybar batted for Ricardo Nanita and lined a single to right, scoring Cruz. Aybar stole second as Alejandro De Aza struck out and then scored on a single by Jose Reyes.
"That's just the way it went today," Kimbrel said. "They got the momentum. Cruz got on with the double to start it off. Any time that happens, it's tough to rebound and get back. We had a chance against Aybar to possibly get the strikeout. It didn't happen."
Aybar was clearly upset when home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez called a strike on a 1-1 pitch that appeared well outside. Aybar hopped out of box and jawed with the umpire as many fans in the crowd of 34,366 hooted and hollered in anger.
But Aybar quickly pulled himself together and lined a 97 mph Kimbrel pitch to right for the game-winning single.
"As you can imagine, you have to have to focus on the pitch that comes after that one. That first pitch, I had to forget about that. I just calmed myself down," Aybar said.
"The only thing he could do is concentrate and put the ball in play," Pena added. "He just forgot about that pitch and put the focus where it should be."
From the outset, it didn't appear to be the Americans' night. Even before the game started, they lost third baseman David Wright. Their hottest hitter with a .438 batting average and a tournament-leading 10 RBIs was scratched from the lineup because of soreness on his left-side rib cage toward the back. He is being examined by the Mets on Friday in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and Torre said afterward that he won't play on Friday night and is doubtful if Team USA advances to San Francisco.
Sans Wright, the only offensive threat for the U.S. came in the first inning. The Americans loaded the bases on three singles off Dominican starter Samuel Deduno and scored their only run when Deduno walked Eric Hosmer to force home Brandon Phillips. But Adam Jones whiffed looking to end the inning. Deduno settled down and allowed only three more baserunners and five hits in his four innings. He struck out seven and walked two.
Meanwhile, Dickey, making up for his loss in the Pool D opener to Mexico, looked sharp. He mowed down the first four batters with his trademark knuckleball dancing. But with one out in the second, Dickey hung one to Hanley Ramirez, the former Marlin and current Dodger, who crushed his second homer of the tournament above the 427-foot sign in left-center, tying the score.
Dickey worked five innings, allowing five hits and the one run. He struck out four and walked one.
From there, it was a battle of the bullpens until Kimbrel cracked.
"My job is to go out there in the most pressure situation of the game," Kimbrel said. "I just wasn't able to get the job done today."
Neither did the U.S., which has one more chance. The D.R. is in.
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.