One open slot remains in Classic semis
Japan set to face Cuba on Wednesday to determine final team
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
Teammates mob David Wright after his game-winning hit on Tuesday. (Doug Benc/Getty Images)
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This time, Team USA proved semi-tough in the World Baseball Classic, and perhaps a little bit more than that.
Overcoming injuries and a ninth-inning deficit in dramatic fashion Tuesday night, the United States advanced to the semifinal round of the second edition of the Classic, something it didn't do in the inaugural Classic in 2006.
Team USA did it this time by the narrowest of margins in Miami against the most able of opponents, and at about the last possible moment -- one out in the bottom of the ninth in an elimination game. With David Wright wristing a sinking liner inside the right-field line with the bases loaded for a 6-5 win, the U.S. squad produced a mid-March dogpile on the Dolphin Stadium field worthy of late October.
Kevin Youkilis, who knows all about the subject, said this dogpile stood out on its own.
"That was nuts to go out there and do that, and just to be able to celebrate with different guys," the Red Sox star first baseman and member of the 2007 World Series champions said. "I think the most special thing is, you're celebrating a game, you're celebrating a nation."
With that celebration came another, this one from Korea, which dispatched rival Japan into an elimination game of its own with a 4-1 win in San Diego to earn its second spot in the semis in as many Classics.
So with Saturday's first semifinal at Dodger Stadium in their sights, three teams have earned a spot -- two first-timers in the U.S. and Venezuela from Pool 2, and Korea returning for another shot at the title. That leaves one semifinal berth, and it will be filled by a team that not only made it to the semis but the finals last time.
Defending champion Japan will take on perennial international power and 2006 Classic runner-up Cuba in the last elimination game of the second round, with the winner advancing to Los Angeles after playing Korea for the higher seed out of Pool 1 on Thursday.
That's what Team USA will do on Wednesday in Miami, meeting Venezuela to determine the top seed coming out of Pool 2 before heading to Dodger Stadium for a three-day championship weekend.
The runner-up from Pool 1 out of San Diego will meet the winner of Pool 2 out of Miami in the first semifinal, to be held at 9 p.m. ET Saturday. The second semifinal, between the Pool 1 winner and the Pool 2 runner-up, will be held at 8 p.m. ET Sunday. The final is slated for 9 p.m. ET Monday.
From the outset of their participation in the tournament, Team USA's players made it clear nothing short of Dodger Stadium would do, and that really the goal was winning the whole thing, not just taking a step the 2006 team didn't take.
But for one night, getting to the semis was plenty sweet for the one group that truly can be called America's team.
"The celebration was pretty wild," Wright said. "I never thought that we'd be dogpiling in March. But it was pretty special and something I'll always remember."
Puerto Rico, which won all three games in Pool D play in San Juan to earn a berth in Pool 2, was on the good side of a seesaw battle heading into the bottom of the ninth, leading 5-3. A pair of singles off Phillies reliever J.C. Romero brought his teammate, Jimmy Rollins, to the plate, and the two staged a tense eight-pitch at-bat before Rollins walked to load the bases. Romero gave way to Fernando Cabrera, who walked Youkilis before allowing the two-run single to Wright.
For Team Puerto Rico, a tournament that had started out with such glee in the stands and success on the field had come to an abrupt end in two tight victories in two nights against two of the world's elite teams.
"The fans in Puerto Rico, they were fired up about this team," said Mets slugger Carlos Delgado. "And I hope this can really be a trampoline for baseball in Puerto Rico."
For the U.S., the spring in its step is back. So much had been made in recent days of its rash of injuries, and it turned out that its depth paid off with a string of All-Stars putting together the ninth-inning rally.
It was enough to get USA manager Davey Johnson, who admitted to be eager to avenge the 11-1 loss Puerto Rico handed his club earlier this round, puffing his chest out a little bit with national pride.
"We play the best baseball around the world," Johnson said. "The world is catching up with us, but we need to be there, and it's going to be a great event out there. I can't wait. It's going to be outstanding."