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USA and Dominican Republic set for first WBC confrontation

R.A. Dickey, Team USAR.A. Dickey, who will start tonight for Team USA, got roughed up by Mexico in his WBC debut. (AP)

Team USA and the Dominican Republic, arguably the two best teams in this year’s World Baseball Classic, will meet for the first time in WBC history on Thursday night in a battle for one of the two remaining semifinal berths in the tournament. The game, which will take place at 7 p.m. ET at Miami’s Marlins Park, will see the USA, which will play as the home team, send out reigning National League Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey against the Dominican’s Samuel Deduno.

That pitching matchup is a mismatch. Deduno is 29 and has all of 15 major league starts to his name, all of which came last year with the Twins. The former property of the Rockies and Padres, Deduno’s development was slowed by visa problems and a series of elbow injuries, including a 2008 Tommy John surgery. Those elbow problems seem to have sapped the speed off his fastball, which was once in the mid-90s but averaged just 91 miles per hour last year per BrooksBaseball.net. Deduno has a ton of movement on that fastball, but that has led to significant control problems. His best pitch is his curveball, but he’s no better at throwing that for strikes. With the Twins last year, he walked 53 men against just 57 strikeouts in 79 innings (6.0 BB/9). Deduno did ace his first start in this year’s Classic, throwing four scoreless innings with five strikeouts against no walks, but he did so against an overmatched Spanish team that went 0-3 in Round 1.

Dickey, by comparison, was not sharp in his Round 1 start against Mexico, giving up four runs in four frames, two of them coming on a towering home run by Adrian Gonzalez. What’s more, the Dominican Republic’s best hitter, the red-hot Robinson Cano, is one of the better knuckleball hitters in the game. Cano hit .292/.320/.667 in 50 career plate appearances against Tim Wakefield and is 3-for-10 with a double, a pair of walks, and just one strikeout in his career against Dickey. Cano has been the WBC’s hottest hitter to this point, going 12-for-19 (.632) with half of those hits going for extra bases (four doubles, two home runs and one of each in his 3-for-4 performance on Tuesday), and though he has yet to draw a walk in the tournament, may find himself being intentionally passed multiple times in Thursday night’s game.

The USA’s leading hitter has been David Wright, who leads the tournament with 10 RBIs, though seven of those came on two swings: a grand slam against Italy in Round 1 and a bases-loaded double against Puerto Rico on Tuesday. Still, Wright, who has picked up the nickname “Captain America” is 7-for-16 in the WBC with another double, three walks and no strikeouts.

With starters allowed to throw 80 pitches in Round 2, the Dominicans could be in trouble if Dickey’s knuckleball finds its flutter, but if they can get into the USA’s bullpen with the game close, things even out considerably. Fernando Rodney, Santiago Casilla, Octavio Dotel and Pedro Strop have combined for 12 2/3 scoreless innings in the tournament while striking out 12 and posting a collective WHIP of 0.79.

Thursday night’s loser will play Puerto Rico in an elimination game on Friday night to determine the other semifinalist (the winner of that game plays the winner of tonight's game on Saturday to determine seeding for the semis). Ultimately, I expect both of these teams to advance, but that doesn’t dull the excitement of one of this tournament’s marquee matchups, one that we didn’t get to see in 2006 or 2009.

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