By Walter Villa
MIAMI – Team USA scored three runs in its final three innings, but it was what happened at the beginning of the game that doomed the Americans.
They couldn’t hit Nelson Figueroa.
That, in a nutshell, is why the U.S. lost to Puerto Rico, 4-3, Friday night, getting eliminated from the World Baseball Classic, just one win shy of the semifinals.
Puerto Rico, which knocked out another one of the tournament’s favorites, Venezuela, in the first round, advances from Miami along with the Dominican Republic. They will be joined in San Francisco next week by Japan and Holland.
Figueroa’s career numbers in the majors are not impressive. He is 20-35 with a 4.55 ERA, and he hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2011. But the 38-year-old righthander was on Friday night, according to American second baseman Brandon Phillips.
“He kept us off balance,” Phillips said of Figueroa. “He hit his spots. I’ve faced him plenty of times, and that’s the best I’ve seen him pitch.”
Team USA manager Joe Torre said his pitching coach Greg Maddux, who knows a thing or two about how to work the plate, made a comment to him during the game.
“Maddux said, ‘it’s not the pitch selection, it’s where it is’,” Torre said. “Even though he wasn’t overpowering, he was throwing the ball where he wanted.”
Figueroa said this not the greatest game he’s ever pitched simply because he is not done yet. Interestingly enough, even though he is not affiliated with a big-league team at the moment, he said winning the World Series is still his ultimate goal.
Semantics aside, though, he acknowledged how important Friday night was to Puerto Rico and its fans.
“We were supreme underdogs,” he said. “I sat and watched MLB Network (before the games) and listened to the comments about all the things I couldn’t do. So it was motivation to show ‘em what kind of pitcher I (am).
“I go against the book sometimes. I’m not a guy who throws very hard, but I throw inside. A lot of times (batters) will sit outside waiting for the breaking ball, and they won’t get it.
“So it was a great exhibition of what can be done without a plus fastball.”
The loss caps off another disappointing World Baseball Classic for Team USA. The U.S. has never advanced to the championship game, and this is the second time in three tries that the U.S. has failed to make it to the final four. With Friday night’s loss, the U.S. is now 10-10 overall in World Baseball Classic play.