By WALTER VILLA
MIAMI—The stage is set for Team USA vs. the Dominican Republic.
Dominican manager Tony Pena repeatedly has referred to the United States as the favorite in this four-team WBC second-round Pool 2 at Marlins Park.
On Tuesday night, the Americans lived up to that hype, defeating Puerto Rico, 7-1, before an enthusiastic crowd of 32,872. Puerto Rico now plays Italy at 7 p.m. Wednesday in an elimination game.
The U.S. and the Dominicans will match up Thursday night at 7, and the winner of that game is guaranteed a trip to the semifinals that begin Sunday in San Francisco.
Team USA got five RBIs from David Wright and one each from Joe Mauer and Adam Jones. It was a close game, 4-1, until Wright’s long fly to right-center field barely eluded the grasp of his ex-Mets teammate Angel Pagan, resulting in three runs.
It was the third time in the game Wright hit with the bases loaded. He had a run-scoring groundout and a run-scoring single in his two other chances.
Early on, the Americans relied on the heroics performed by a player who grew up in Miami and another who competes here now.
Gio Gonzalez, who had a decorated high school career in Miami and nearby Hialeah, pitched five shutout innings, allowing three hits and no walks. He struck out five and exited after throwing 69 pitches (the limit for starters was 85). Gonzalez had joined Team USA for Pool 2 and gave the Americans their best start yet in four Classic games.
Gonzalez got help from Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, known for the power bat that produced 37 homers in 123 games last season. Stanton had a pair of sharp singles Tuesday, but it was his glove that sparkled most of all.
In the fourth inning, Carlos Beltran belted a one-out double off the wall in left-center. But he was stranded when Yadier Molina grounded out to short, and Mike Aviles flew out to deep right field. Stanton sprinted back to grab the ball on the edge of the warning track, saving one run and maybe more had the inning extended.
Another defensive gem occurred in the sixth, when Alexis Rios stung a one-hopper back to the mound. Reliever Jeremy Affeldt grabbed the ball—almost in self defense—and fired to second baseman Brandon Phillips, who completed the double play from his knees.
Beltran had to be frustrated. In addition to his double off the wall, he hit a 400-foot fly that was caught by center fielder Jones in the first inning.
Puerto Rico had its best chance at a rally in the eighth, when it put runners on second and third with no outs, trailing 4-1. They got a run-scoring groundout by Pagan. But reliever David Hernandez struck out Royals farmhand Irving Falu looking and got Alexis Rios to pop out to first baseman Eric Hosmer.
Rios had worked the count to 3-0 before taking a strike and then swinging. Had he gotten on base, it would have brought up the dangerous Beltran as the tying run.
Instead, Beltran led off the ninth against U.S. closer Craig Kimbrel. And by then, Team USA had added three runs and the game was virtually over.