DR turns to Aybar to make contact, and he delivers
Pinch-hit RBI single in ninth inning sends Dominicans to Classic semifinals
MIAMI -- OK, so it wasn't Mission Impossible that the Dominican Republic faced in the ninth inning Thursday night against Team USA.
It was, however, certainly improbable.
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Atlanta closer extraordinaire Craig Kimbrel was on the mound for Team USA. Erick Aybar made a rare pinch-hit appearance for the Dominicans with the go-ahead run on third base and one out.
Before the game, in which the winner was to clinch a spot in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic in San Francisco, a Dominican media member explained, "They aren't talking about the Pope in our country. They are talking about the WBC. This is the biggest game in the history of Dominican baseball."
During the game, a Dominican-dominated crowd of 34,366 at Marlins Park was blowing horns, dancing the salsa and making it clear that the expectation was to celebrate a victory, not mourn a defeat.
"We have to thank God for the fans we had [at the game]," said Nelson Cruz, who led off the ninth against Kimbrel with a double and went to third on a Carlos Santana groundout. "Thanks to them we had that extra motivation."
In the midst of the top of the ninth, home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez called a debatable 1-1 pitch to Aybar a strike, and Aybar was visibly disgusted.
But then, on a team that has punctuated each run scored in this Classic with an outpouring of bodies from the dugout to exchange high fives and point to the scoreboard, Aybar took a deep breath and accomplished what so few others have been able to accomplish. He solved Kimbrel.
"An umpire makes a mistake, and what I did was forget about that pitch and concentrate on the [next] pitch," Aybar said.
Kimbrel, who never gave up two hits during an outing in his 63 appearances for Atlanta last season, much less two runs, served up a fastball. Aybar, a career .176 pinch-hitter, shot a go-ahead single into right field.
"I have [to look for a pitch] to make contact, and with that pitch I made contact," he said.
Oh, and Aybar eventually stole second and scored on a Jose Reyes single.
"He forget about that pitch and put the concentration where it should be," said Dominican manager Tony Pena. "We wanted him to make contact, and that is what he did."
The celebration began.
The Dominicans are headed to the Classic semifinals at AT&T Park, although they do have a game remaining in Miami on Saturday against the winner of Friday night's elimination game between Team USA and Puerto Rico (watch on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes at 7 p.m. ET).
The winner of the game will face the Kingdom of the Netherlands on Monday at AT&T Park, with the loser having to fly into San Francisco following Saturday's game and prepare for a Sunday matchup against Japan.
The Dominicans, however, get a day to rest and enjoy the success on Thursday night against Team USA.
The players get a day to reflect, along with their fans, on their second late-game rally in as many games in Pool 2 play. Two days after overcoming a 4-0 first-inning deficit against Italy in the Pool 2 opener, the Dominicans bounced back from Samuel Deduno's two-out, bases-loaded walk to Eric Hosmer that gave Team USA a 1-0 lead.
First it was Hanley Ramirez who unloaded a 2-1 R.A. Dickey pitch over the left-field fence to tie the game with one out in the second.
And then it was up to Aybar to step up.
He may be the starting shortstop for the Angels, but he's an extra man on the Dominican team, where Reyes gets the starting nod and Ramirez moves over to third base so he can get in the lineup.
It's not a job Aybar has much experience handling.
Only 41 of Aybar's 2,930 big league plate appearances have come as a pinch-hitter -- just three last season and 12 in the last five. He has, however, struck out only 349 times during his six-plus big league seasons, and with that go-ahead run on third and less than two outs, that was the number that caught Pena's attention.
"With Erick Aybar, [there are] no statistics [to support his pinch-hitting ability], but at that moment I wanted a batter who makes contact," said Pena. "He was the best batter."
And he came through.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.