With a come-from-behind win against Team Canada, Team USA won Pool D and earned a trip to Miami for the second round of the World Baseball Classic.
It wasn't necessarily the easiest path for Team USA to reach Miami, especially after a disappointing loss in their opener against Mexico, leaving the Americans on the verge of elimination in the first round. In fact, the Americans weren't necessarily dominant in their performances against Italy and Canada either.
The United States had to come from behind against Italy in Game 2, and only really showed their offensive potential in a five-run fifth inning, which included David Wright's game-winning grand slam.
The American's struggles would continue, as they would fall behind in the do-or-die game against Team Canada after an early two-run blast off the bat of Michael Saunders in the second inning. The Americans were able to rally, but the game was never truly put away until a four-run ninth inning, which was capped off by a bases-clearing double off the bat of Eric Hosmer.
When all the dust settled, the Americans found themselves atop Pool D and heading onto the second round of the World Baseball Classic. The Americans will be joined in Miami by Pool D runner-up Italy, Pool C winner Dominican Republic and Pool C runner-up Puerto Rico.
With the Americans' first game on Tuesday, let's take a look at how the United States will fare, and if they will see themselves in the Championship Round in San Francisco.
Game One: United States vs. Puerto Rico
The Americans will face stiff competition in Game 1, as they draw Team Puerto Rico who finished as the runners-up in Pool C. The Puerto Ricans finished 2-1, with their lone loss coming against a Dominican Republic squad that has looked near unbeatable in the first few games.
Team Puerto Rico features plenty of major league talent, as the likes of Angel Pagan, Alex Rios, Mike Aviles and Carlos Beltran fill out a balanced and dangerous lineup. ABC News reports that Puerto Rico will start right-hander Mario Santiago, who has compiled a 36-51 record over seven seasons in the minor leagues. The Americans will counter with left-hander Gio Gonzalez, who is fresh off his best season of his career.
At first glance, the pitching match up appears to heavily favor the Americans, but none of that will matter if the Americans can't knock in the runners they have been leaving on base. The Americans were a dismal 4-26 (.154) with RISP through the first two games before finally breaking through late against the Canadians. If the Americans struggle to plate runs early against the dangerous Puerto Rico lineup, they could find themselves facing do-or die games all the way until the championship round.
After being benched for the deciding game against the Canadians, expect Giancarlo Stanton to respond in a big way and show the world why he is one of the most dangerous hitters in the game today. Expect David Wright to continue his impressive tournament as well, as he has truly been the MVP for the Americans so far.
On the mound, don't be surprised to see Gio help carry the load somewhere into the fifth or sixth inning before being taken out from the expanded 80-pitch limit in the second round, with the Americans comfortably in the lead.
Team Puerto Rico will make it close late, but it won't be enough, as the Americans will advance to take on the Dominican Republic in the final play-in game with a trip to San Francisco on the line.
Predicted Final: United States 7-5
Game Two: United States vs. Dominican Republic
Italy has been a great story early, but they just don't have the pitching to keep the most dangerous lineup in the world at bay, as the Dominican Republic will easily advance for a showdown against the Americans.
The Dominican Republic lineup is literally a who's who of All-Stars featuring Robinson Cano, Hanley Ramirez, Carlos Santana, Nelson Cruz and current front-runner for WBC MVP, Jose Reyes. The Dominicans have had no trouble scoring early in the tournament, highlighted by their 9-3 victory over Venezuela in their opener. In that game, the Dominicans were able to chase starter Anibal Sanchez in the first inning, as well as roughing up Jhoulys Chacin to the tune of five runs in three innings.
With Edison Valquez expected to start against the Italians in the opener, expect either Wandy Rodriguez or Samuel Deduno to oppose the Americans in Game 2. The Americans will most likely turn to reigning NL Cy Young Award winner R.A Dickey, who will be looking to rebound from a disappointing start against Mexico in the opener.
Dickey seemed to struggle with his knuckle ball in his start against Mexico, often resorting to his fastball to try and keep the hitters off balance. Dickey can not afford to not have his knuckle ball at full strength, as the Dominican lineup is too deep to make mistakes.
Expect manager Joe Torre to have a short leash with Dickey, especially if Gio can keep the Americans bullpen rested in the opener. Don't be surprised if Dickey is chased early as he continues to struggle with his knuckle ball, as the Americans will throw everyone they can in order to earn a spot in the championship round.
The Dominican Republic will get out to an early lead and hold on for the win, joining the Netherlands and Japan in the championship round, while sending the United States to their second do-or-die game of the tournament.
Predicted Final: Dominican Republic 8-5
Game Three: United States vs. Puerto Rico
The clock finally strikes midnight for the Cinderella Italian team, as Puerto Rico sets up a rematch for the opportunity to advance to San Francisco as the fourth and final team in the championship round.
At this point, all hands will be on deck for the Americans and Puerto Rico. With how the rotation is set, expect the Americans to hand the ball to either Derek Holland or Ryan Vogelsong. In this match up, expect the game to be low scoring and filled with a bunch of small ball, as the game will come down to the first team to make a mistake.
In all honesty, at the beginning of the tournament, I'm not too sure I would have believed in the Americans' ability to win this game, but something changed in the American squad in the do-or-die game against Canada on Sunday; they got serious.
Now I'm not saying the Americans weren't taking the tournament seriously from the beginning, but I think the passion they saw from the other countries in pool play inspired them to bring out their best for the world to see.
Expect to see the Americans fall behind early, but mount a comeback mid-way through the game. This is where I expect the American bats to truly explode, similar to the game against the Canadians. Back by the power of the long ball, expect the Americans to break it open late, and take down Puerto Rico again, setting up a rematch with the Dominican Republic while booking their ticket to the championship round in San Francisco at the same time.
Predicted Final: United States 9-2
Game Four: United States vs. Dominican Republic
As much as this game means for seeding in the final round, I just don't see the Americans taking down the Dominican squad just yet, especially with Gio Gonzalez most likely being unavailable for this game.
Will The US Advance to the Championship Round?
Not to take anything away from the other pitchers on the roster, but Gio is the guy Joe Torre is going to want to give the ball to in the semi-finals, as he is their best bet to get to the championship game. Although the Americans would love to get the better seed and potentially set up a "better" match up, don't expect the Americans to come out and blow anyone away.
The game will be entertaining, but both teams will have their eyes set on the championship round. Expect a good game, with the Dominicans holding court and heading to San Francisco as the only undefeated team left in the tournament.
Predicted Final: Dominican Republic 4-2