Classic finish saves more than USA
Dramatic victory should spark further interest in tournament
MIAMI -- Team USA gave the World Baseball Classic a huge bailout Tuesday night in balmy Dolphin Stadium just when it looked like the Red, White and Blue was once again going up in flames.
Instead, with an incredible three-run, ninth-inning comeback, the USA wobbled off the field with a stunning 6-5 conquest of stubborn Puerto Rico and a ticket to Los Angeles.
The dramatic victory vaults Team USA to the Classic's final round that begins Saturday in Dodger Stadium.
The tournament wouldn't be a total flop without the USA, but let's be honest. The presence of Davey Johnson's juggernaut adds excitement and pizzazz for casual baseball fans who otherwise would be waiting for the Major League season to begin.
In the first Classic, three years ago, the USA played poorly and was eliminated without even making it to the semifinals.
A world tournament on our home soil without fans waving the American flag leaves me with an empty feeling. Win or lose, the USA needs to be at Dodger Stadium to help make this event a success.
Puerto Rico, which drubbed the USA 11-1 in a rout that was mercifully halted after seven innings Friday night, held a 5-3 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth.
The USA returns to action Wednesday night in a game against Venezuela that will determine the seedings for the finals. Look for both teams to rest many of their players.
Tuesday night you might have thought the players had just won a World Series the way they mobbed hero David Wright and celebrated in short center field with a dogpile you've seen so many times.
"All I know is that David Wright's face was in the dirt, and all the Mets fans were panicking," said Brian Roberts, who singled and stole second base in the middle of the decisive rally. "When people say these games aren't important they should have been in the dugout in the ninth inning."
There were only 13,224 paying customers in the cavernous Dolphin Stadium, but they got their money's worth. This game -- it lasted nearly four hours -- had more subplots and twists and turns than you can imagine.
And eerie coincidences.
Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino led off the ninth with a single to right field off teammate J. C. Romero, who was on the mound for his native Puerto Rico.
Baltimore's Roberts, the USA's latest addition, followed with a single, putting runners on first and second. Victorino scampered to third on Derek Jeter's fly to right field and this is where the drama gets sticky.
Roberts stole second base with Jimmy Rollins batting, unaware that the "hold" sign was flashed from the dugout.
"From home plate, I said, 'Oh, my goodness,' " said Rollins. "You could see the ball and you could see him. It was like, he was so out. Then, (catcher Yadier) Molina handcuffed the second baseman with his throw which was the difference between safe and out."
Rollins worked an eight-pitch walk that was the key to the inning.
J-Roll knows Romero, his teammate, well. J.C. has great stuff, but on occasion is wild. It took enormous patience on Rollins' part to get the walk.
"I just had to bear down, the concentration you have in that situation, the adrenaline, the feeling of importance is very close to what it was like in the World Series last October," said Rollins.
"Everyone knows J.C.'s reputation. He's in the zone, out of the zone. If you wait him out, you can have success. I had to believe in myself, especially this early in the season.
"I told him, 'It's going to come down to you and me. You get me, you can do what ever you want. If I get you, I can do whatever I want.' I was thinking if he made a mistake I would get him. When I got the two strikes, I had to bear down. He got me to jump at a couple of sliders which he threw in a perfect spot."
Rollins' walk loaded the bases and kayoed Romero. Kevin Youkilis cut the deficit to a run when reliever Fernando Cabrera walked him with the bases loaded.
Wright, followed with his two-run single down the right-field line, scoring Roberts and Rollins.
Looking back, Roberts' steal of second was as important as Rollins' walk.
"I was told afterwards that I was given the hold sign," Roberts sheepishly said. "I guess it (steal) was more difficult than I thought. To tell you the truth I got here yesterday and I still don't know the signs. Really, I thought that was the perfect time to steal the base. That's what I do. That's my game."
Pausing, he related to what Rollins was seeing.
"Halfway to second, I panicked. I really thought I was out," he said.
And then Victorino summed up the night best.
"I heard a guy in right field yelling you guys don't have the desire or attitude to win. We showed them that we do. I think that's one of those things everyone criticizes, but we find a way to win."
For this World Baseball Classic none was more important than Tuesday's.
It just might have saved the tournament.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.