The Dominican Republic’s dramatic victory over team USA Thursday night sets up a showdown between the Americans and Puerto Rico. At stake: a trip to San Francisco for the Championship round of the 2012 World Baseball Classic. Joe Torre will send Ryan Vogelsong to the mound for Team USA. Puerto Rico counters with 38-year old journeyman right-hander Nelson Figueroa.
Yes, the same Nelson Figueroa who last pitched in the majors in 2011 as a member of the Astros. The question everyone is asking: Why would manager Edwin Rodriguez pin his hopes on Figueroa with so much on the line?
According to WBC rules, starting pitchers are only allowed to throw 80 pitches in this round. So Figueroa won’t be expected to go out and pitch a complete game. Rodriguez is hoping he can get four solid innings from his starter before turning it over to the bullpen. Team Puerto Rico has a star-studded lineup, but their pitching staff isn’t exactly filled with household names. The hope is that the offense can provide enough run support to keep them in the game.
On Tuesday the Americans beat Puerto Rico by a score of 7-1. The game was close until the late innings when the Americans broke it open against the Puerto Rican bullpen including Astros lefty Xavier Cedeno. David Wright led the way in that contest with five RBIs. But Wright won’t be in the lineup tonight. A sore back has ended his outstanding run in this year’s WBC.
The pressure will be on Figueroa and Team Puerto Rico. They have failed to make the championship round in either of the first two WBCs and a loss would send them to their third straight fifth place finish. Figueroa is no stranger to big game international competition and he will need to draw from his experience. The veteran has had success in the Venezuelan winter league and was the MVP of the 2007 Taiwan Series. That year Figueroa started and won three games in the seven-game championship series, a record that still stands today.
Only that was then and this is now. And Team USA isn’t the La New Bears of the Chinese Professional Baseball League.
Tonight’s game will be aired live on MLB Network at 6:00 Central Time.