MIAMI – Once again, the United States could only watch as an opposing pitcher celebrated at the World Baseball Classic.
This time it was 38-year-old right-hander Nelson Figueroa, who became the pride of Puerto Rico on Friday night when he led his team into the semifinals and eliminated the Americans, 4-3.
After Figueroa threw his last pitch to end the sixth inning, he leaped off the mound with a hoot like a kid at recess, then ran to catcher Yadier Molina to share a hug.
“We were supreme underdogs against that lineup,” Figueroa said. “It was motivation to show them what kind of pitcher I was.”
On Thursday, demonstrative Dominicans dominated the All-Star-laden U.S. squad. The Americans endured a scoreless streak of 14 innings spanning the two defeats, and Figueroa limited them to two singles in six shutout innings.
The Americans have still not won the WBC – or even reached the final – in three tries.
“When you play double-elimination, it’s a crapshoot,” manager Joe Torre said. “And Figueroa pitched his tail off tonight.”
J.C. Romero escaped a bases-loaded jam in the eighth and retired the final four batters for his first save. Center fielder Angel Pagan caught the final out, triggering a pileup of Puerto Ricans behind the mound.
“When I caught that ball, I was thinking about my country all the way,” Pagan said. “We overcome what everyone expected. I think nobody expected us to be this far, but it’s about what we believe, and we believe we can go all the way.”
The Puerto Ricans advanced for the first time to the semifinals, which begin Sunday in San Francisco.
They’ll play the Dominican Republic today in the final game in Miami, which will determine seedings for the championship round.
Two-time defending champion Japan and the Netherlands round out the final four.
Figueroa (2-0) has a modest 20-35 record for six teams in nine major-league seasons, with his most recent big-league game in May 2011. He pitched in Triple-A last year but dominated the best of the U.S.
“I don’t throw very hard, but I pitch inside,” he said. “It was a great exhibition of what can be done without a plus fastball. It was an opportunity to demonstrate that good pitching beats good hitting.”
It helped him that the U.S. team was again without WBC RBI leader David Wright, who missed his second game in a row because of a strain on the left side of his rib cage.
Figueroa allowed only a single by Brandon Phillips in the fourth and a single by Jimmy Rollins in the sixth.
“He kept us off balance. He was hitting his spots,” said Phillips, who will now rejoin the Cincinnati Reds in Goodyear, Ariz.
“I didn’t want to go back to Goodyear. I wanted to go to San Francisco so bad. It stinks, man.”
Puerto Rico lost to the United States 7-1 on Tuesday, then staved off elimination Wednesday, rallying from a 3-1 deficit in the eighth inning to beat Italy.
The hits kept coming Friday, and the Puerto Ricans scored all four runs with two outs. Mike Aviles had an RBI single in the first, and Andy Gonzalez doubled home two runs in the sixth.
Ryan Vogelsong (1-1) gave up two runs in 5 2-3 innings.
When Figueroa hit the tournament’s 80-pitch limit, Giovanni Soto came on and gave up an RBI single to Giancarlo Stanton in the seventh.
Trailing 4-1, the Americans continued their rally in the eighth. Rollins and Phillips singled off Jose De La Torre, and Ryan Braun followed with an RBI double. Joe Mauer walked to load the bases, and with two out, Fernando Cabrera walked Ben Zobrist to force in a run and make it 4-3.
Eric Hosmer then grounded out again Romero, who followed with a perfect ninth.
“We were one swing away from winning the game,” Braun said.
The crowd of 19,762 was smaller and more subdued than on Thursday, when the Dominican Republic transformed the ballpark into a Caribbean carnival by beating the United States.
But Puerto Rican fans honked air horns and waved flags with each hit by their team and each out by the Americans.
“I didn’t know how big baseball was in other countries,” Phillips said. “And when you see other countries play, it’s like, wow, that’s why I love playing this game.”
Puerto Rico scored in the first inning on a leadoff single by Pagan and two-out singles by Molina and Aviles.
The Puerto Ricans added three runs in the sixth, helped by three walks. Vinny Pestano replaced Vogelsong and walked in a run, then gave up Gonzalez’s double.