Meanwhile, Team USA was building a reputation as the tournament's "comeback kids." But then Puerto Rico found a way to stifle their ninth-inning rally Friday night.
The Dominicans and Americans were the biggest favorites heading into WBC '17, but as the tournament enters its final apex, it's the Puerto Ricans who are rolling. Unbeaten at 5-0, Puerto Rico pulled off a thrilling 6-5 victory against the U.S. on Friday in San Diego -- aided by an uncharacteristic error from third baseman Nolan Arenado -- to clinch Pool F's top seed and punch its ticket back to the semifinals in Los Angeles. No team appears more determined than Puerto Rico, and yet at the same time, no team is having more fun.
"We're just out there having fun," said third baseman Carlos Correa after Friday's win. "We're having a good time. We're playing baseball really hard, and, you know, we're 5-0 so far, so we'll keep doing that."
One of Puerto Rico's tensest moments so far came Friday night, when it held a slim 4-3 lead in the bottom of the sixth before putting two runners aboard and advancing them on a double steal. Angel Pagan followed with a ground ball to Arenado that appeared to be routine at first, but then took a bad hop off the lip of the infield grass and elevated toward Arenado's head. Displaying the calm instincts that have netted him four Gold Glove Awards, Arenado reacted quickly to glove the ball, but he rushed the throw and sailed it past first baseman Eric Hosmer. That allowed another two runs to score for Puerto Rico, stretching their lead to 6-3.
Arenado's error was perhaps the biggest piece of luck Puerto Rico has needed so far in WBC '17; the overwhelming majority of its success has been on its own merit. The 2013 runner-up has shown it can beat its opponents in all facets of the game. Puerto Rico's offense was already leading the Classic in batting average, slugging and on-base percentage before it jumped on U.S. starter Marcus Stroman for six straight hits in the first inning Friday -- all before Stroman could record a single out. Carlos Beltran, one month shy of his 40th birthday, is batting .471 in the tournament with an OPS of 1.079. Correa, Francisco Lindor and Yadier Molina have each homered twice, while Javier Baez stole three bases Friday night -- including two steals of third. Through five games, Puerto Rico has outscored its opponents 38-13 and has trailed in just one of the 43 innings it has played so far.
"We have stopped thinking about our name on the back and we've been thinking about Puerto Rico," said Beltran, "and this has been a family as far as this team is concerned."
The funny thing is, Puerto Rico hasn't needed most of those runs to win, because its pitching staff will carry a sterling 2.30 ERA into the semifinals. Mets right-hander Seth Lugo has led the way for Puerto Rico's rotation, winning his second start of the Classic on Friday by holding an All-Star caliber lineup for Team USA to three runs on five hits over 5 2/3 innings.
Then there's the defense, which has created nearly as many highlight plays as outs recorded. Baez thrilled the world with his no-look tag on Nelson Cruz on Wednesday. Lindor is showing why he was a first-time Gold Glove Award recipient in 2016. And Correa, playing third base for the first time in his professional career, has dazzled with both his arm and his glove -- including a sensational snare of a liner from Arenado on Friday that measured at a 104.3 mph exit velocity off the bat, according to Statcast™.
"They're doing a lot of things right right now," said Team USA manager Jim Leyland after Friday's game. "They're a very good team. They play the game right. They play a combination of big ball and small ball, and you tip your hat to them."
The road back to the finals won't get any easier for Puerto Rico, not with Pool E standouts Japan and the Netherlands getting plenty of rest before the semifinals in Los Angeles. There's also potential for a Pool F rematch in the final, should either the Dominican Republic or United States get up off the mat and make a run. But having already charged through a grouping that some observers were labeling the "Pool of Death" in San Diego, Puerto Rico is feeling ready to take on all challengers -- and do it in style.
"I think the boys are having a great time, and this is a huge victory for our people, for our country," said Beltran. "I know they are having a great time, and I know they are very proud. We're hoping in God to finish this mission."
The World Baseball Classic runs through March 22. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament is being distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games in San Diego's Petco Park and the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.