David Wright has been nursing a sore left oblique throughout the World Baseball Classic, but it hasn't seemed to bother him in the games. Wright had been Team USA's best hitter prior to Thursday night, going 7-for-16 with a tournament-leading 10 RBIs, but because he had been visiting the trainer, he had been a regular on the team's injury reports. The Mets, who signed Wright to a new eight-year, $138 million contract in December, decided to act on those reports Thursday night, protecting their investment by making Wright, who took batting practice without incident, a late scratch from Team USA's lineup.
As a result, Willie Bloomquist was the starting third baseman for the U.S. in the team's toughest matchup of the tournament as it took on the undefeated Dominican Republic on Thursday night. They felt Wright's absence immediately as they loaded the bases with two outs in the bottom of the first inning against Dominican starter Samuel Deduno, but only managed to push across one run as Deduno got Adam Jones looking at a nasty 3-2 curveball on the inside corner.
That lone run, pushed across on a walk to Eric Hosmer, was the only run Team USA would manage in the game. The Dominican Republic answered right away with a one-out solo homer by Hanley Ramirez off R.A. Dickey in the top of the second, and that 1-1 score would remain until the top of the ninth.
In the interim, Deduno worked that curve to rack up seven strikeouts in four innings, allowing just two more baserunners after the first. Dickey gave the U.S. five innings without allowing a second run, but, as I wrote in my preview Wednesday morning, when the game got to the bullpens, the USA's pitching advantage disappeared. While Luke Gregerson, Tim Collins, and Steve Cishek comined for three scoreless innings in relief of Dickey, the D.R.'s Kelvin Herrera and Octavio Dotel combined for three perfect innings in relief of Deduno, and Pedro Strop worked around a single for a perfect eighth.
That sent the game to the top of the ninth. With no possibility of a save situation remaining, USA manager Joe Torre went to his closer, Craig Kimbrel, but Nelson Cruz hit Kimbrel's very first pitch into the right-field gap for a leadoff double and moved to third on Carlos Santana's subsequent groundout.
With one out and the go-ahead run 90 feet away, Dominican manager Tony Peña sent up Erick Aybar to pinch hit for the lone Minor Leaguer in his lineup, leftfielder Ricardo Nanita. Aybar fouled off strike one, took, ball two, then was victimized by a brutal strike call by home plate umpire Angel Hernandez on a slider that was more than a foot outside and a bit low. That put Kimbrel up in the count 1-2, but rather than try to get Aybar to fish after another outside pitch, he came back with an inside fastball. Aybar was ready for it and singled into right to plate Cruz, then stole second, allowing him to score on Jose Reyes's two-out single off Kimbrel.
Fernando Rodney worked a perfect bottom of the ninth to preserve the 3-1 win, with the final out coming down to Bloomquist's spot in the order (Shane Victorino pinch-hit and popped out in his stead). The win puts the Dominican Republic in the semifinals. The loss forces the USA to play Friday night against Puerto Rico with the winner advancing and the loser being eliminated. The probable pitchers for that game are Ryan Vogelsong and Nelson Figueroa. Team USA beat Puerto Rico 7-1 on Tuesday, but five of those runs were driven in by Wright, who will not be able to participate in Friday night's elimination game. Instead, he'll be in Port St. Lucie being examined by the Mets' doctors. It's possible that Wright could return to the team in the semifinals, but they'll have to get there without him first.