Mike Ehrmann/Associated Press
Mike Ehrmann/Associated Press
The native son was aching to pitch in front of the home crowd wearing “USA” on his jersey, calling the opportunity “a kid’s dream.”
The reality was every bit as good as Gio Gonzalez could have dreamt.
The Washington Nationals lefty, who was born to Cuban parents in nearby Hialeah, Fla., silenced Puerto Rico’s hitters for five innings, and David Wright drove in five runs as the U.S. started second-round play of the World Baseball Classic with a critical 7-1 victory Tuesday night at Marlins Park.
Gonzalez allowed three hits and no runs to earn a victory that sent Team USA to today’s winner’s game against the Dominican Republic. Whoever wins will be guaranteed a spot in the semifinals in San Francisco.
The Dominicans came back from an early four-run deficit to edge Italy 5-4 behind three hits by Robinson Cano – he’s 12-for-19 in the WBC – and a three-run rally in the seventh capped by Nelson Cruz’s RBI single. They have won all four games in the tournament and will start Samuel Deduno against the U.S.
Often excitable on the mound, Gonzalez had an especially challenging task keeping his nerves in check while pitching in a game with such patriotic implications. So, he sought advice from pitching coach Greg Maddux, whose pulse barely registered during a Hall of Fame-worthy career in which he won 355 games.
“He just broke it down to something simple like, ‘Think of fielding a routine groundball or fishing. Just take your mind off it,’” Gonzalez said. “I understood it immediately. Just tune it out, think of something real simple, and try to pound the strike zone.”
That Gonzalez did, throwing just 69 pitches – 48 for strikes – and giving up no walks as Team USA built a 3-0 lead through his five innings.
Gonzalez, who did not travel with the club to Arizona because he wasn’t scheduled to pitch in the first round there, called the chance to pitch for the U.S. in his hometown “a blessing.”
He would have liked to face the Cubans, but they were eliminated in Japan short of the semifinals.
“All the Cuban Americans want to pitch against Cuba, but to me I want to pitch for the team where I was born – in Hialeah, Fla.” Gonzalez said. “We want to win for all Americans.”
While Gonzalez will be toasted for his performance in front of his own folks, Wright can forget about getting an invite to the Puerto Rican Day parade when he goes back to New York.
The Mets’ third baseman again hurt the Puerto Ricans’ quest to reach the semifinals, which remains an unaccomplished goal despite advancing to the second round in all three WBCs.
The last time these teams met, in the 2009 WBC, Wright’s RBI hit capped a three-run ninth-inning rally for a 6-5 U.S. win that eliminated Puerto Rico in the second round.
This time his heroics weren’t as dramatic, but Wright’s three-RBI double in the eighth salted away the victory. He also had driven in single runs in the third and fifth as the U.S. slowly padded its lead.
“Obviously the adrenaline is pumping for this tournament,” Wright said. “And I’m not lying when I say that hitting in this lineup is ridiculous. You’ve got some of the best hitters in the game, and it creates a lot of matchup problems, especially late in the game.”
With a crowd of 32,872 largely behind them, the Americans took a 4-1 lead into the eighth and never were threatened. Gonzalez and five relievers held Puerto Rico to seven hits as the U.S. won its third game in a row, allowing a total of seven runs in those victories.
Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez, who ordered a bunt in the first inning, said the fearsome American lineup puts constant pressure on opponents. Wright, he said, hit his big double off a good pitch by lefty Xavier Cedeño.
That should serve as a warning to the Dominicans about Team USA’s capabilities.
“With a lineup like that you have to attack the strike zone,” Rodriguez said. “When you have a lineup like that, where Giancarlo Stanton is hitting eighth, you can’t afford to fall behind in the count. They took advantage of that.”
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