MIAMI — Dominican manager Tony Pena sat at a microphone in an interview room, choking back tears. Just beyond the walls, in the stadium plaza, his celebrating countrymen made a jubilant clamor.
“I feel so emotional,” Pena said finally. “Today was the battle of two titans.”
The Dominican Republic won, beating the United States 3-1 Thursday night to earn a berth in the final round of the World Baseball Classic.
Pinch-hitter Erick Aybar singled home Nelson Cruz with the go-ahead run in the ninth for the Dominicans, who improved to 5-0. They’re assured of a spot in the semifinals beginning Sunday in San Francisco, where two-time defending champion Japan and the Netherlands have already advanced.
The United States must face Puerto Rico on Friday night, with the winner earning a trip to San Francisco and the loser being eliminated. Ryan Vogelsong will pitch for the Americans against Nelson Figueroa.
Playing the U.S. team for the first time ever in the WBC, the Dominicans drew raucous support all night. Horns and percussion pulsed from start to finish, especially in a noisy ninth.
“No doubt it’s the best atmosphere I ever played in,” said Cruz, who has twice reached the World Series. “Thanks to the fans, we had extra motivation you don’t have every day.”
With the score 1-all in the ninth, Cruz led off with a double against Craig Kimbrel (0-1), then took third on a groundout. Aybar singled sharply and ran to first with his index finger raised as his teammates poured out of the dugout to greet Cruz crossing the plate.
Aybar’s hit came one pitch after a called strike two left him irate.
“An umpire makes a mistake,” Aybar said. “What I did was forget about it and make contact.”
Until Aybar’s hit, the Dominicans were 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position.
Aybar stole second and scored on Jose Reyes’ two-out single off Kimbrel.
“I didn’t go out and do my job,” Kimbrel said.
Former Miami Marlin Hanley Ramirez silenced jeers from the crowd with a home run in the second inning for the other Dominican run.
Fernando Rodney, the fifth Dominican pitcher, threw a perfect ninth to complete a six-hitter for his fourth save. He has yet to allow a hit in 4 1-3 innings.
With the final out, several teammates joined Rodney in his familiar arrow-shooting ritual.
The Dominicans were demonstrative from the outset. Pitcher Samuel Deduno struck out Eric Hosmer looking to end the third, then walked to the dugout shouting with both arms raised. He was just as animated after fanning Jimmy Rollins to end the fourth.
Pedro Strop (3-0) pounded his chest when he kept the score tied by getting three outs in the eighth.
“We came here to play baseball without disrespecting anyone,” Rodney said. “A Dominican’s adrenaline is like that. If you want to understand it, go there and experience it.”
U.S. manager Joe Torre had no complaint.
“There’s passion on both sides,” he said. “It’s just showed a little different. It’s nothing we didn’t expect.”
The retractable roof at Marlins Park was closed, which reinforced the racket generated by Dominican spectators. They more than matched the cheers of U.S. fans in the crowd of 34,366.
There was plenty of flag-waving, even by the players. During the game someone gave the Americans a U.S. flag to hang in their dugout.
“That’s the loudest it’s ever been here with the atmosphere, the noisemakers and everything that they brought,” Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton said. “It was definitely a fun crowd to play in front of.”
The U.S. team was without slugger David Wright, scratched shortly before the game because of sore ribs. Wright said he doesn’t think the injury’s serious, but he’s likely to miss the rest of the WBC, Torre said.
Both starting pitchers benefited from umpire Angel Hernandez’s large strike zone, and they cooled off two teams that came into the game batting over .300.
R.A. Dickey, the NL Cy Young Award winner last year, gave up one run and struck out four in five innings. Deduno allowed one run and struck out seven, mostly on curves, in four innings.