(Reuters) - Dominican Republic scored a pair of ninth-inning runs off one of Major League Baseball's most dominant relievers to beat the United States 3-1 on Thursday and clinch a semi-finals berth in the World Baseball Classic.
Craig Kimbrel had been nearly untouchable for the Atlanta Braves in 2012 but with the game on the line, the hard-throwing closer yielded a pinch-hit, run-scoring single by Erick Aybar and another RBI-single to Jose Reyes.
The victory sent the undefeated Dominicans into delirium and the U.S. team into an elimination game on Friday against Puerto Rico. The winner of that game will advance to the semi-finals in San Francisco while the loser will head home.
Japan, winners of the first two WBC titles, and the Netherlands have already qualified for the semi-finals, which will start on Sunday, with the title game on Tuesday.
The U.S. and Dominican Republic boasted 21 major league All-Stars between them with and a slew of slugging hitters but it was pitching that ruled the game, until the ninth.
With the game tied 1-1, Cruz opened the final frame with a line drive into the right-center gap that right-fielder Giancarlo Stanton dove to stop from getting through to the wall while Cruz raced into second with a double.
The Texas Rangers outfielder advanced to third on a ground out and then scored on the single by Aybar, who stole second base to put himself in position to score on the hit by Reyes.
"The whole team did a great job. At the end we came up with the clutch hit. We showed a lot of heart," said Cruz. "I know they going crazy right now in the Dominican. Everybody believe in us and hopefully we'll be able to take it all the way."
Kimbrel notched 42 saves last year with a 1.01 earned run average.
That dominance ended against the Dominicans, who jumped up and down in celebration in the middle of the diamond after the final out. Four Dominican relievers contributed five innings of one-hit pitching with Fernando Rodney finishing up for the save.
"It's tough, we come out here to win," said Kimbrel. "We've got a rough road ahead of us and have to come out and win tomorrow.
"Everybody did great. Everybody did good until I came in."
The U.S. team played without hitting star David Wright, whose 10 runs batted in lead the tournament. Wright was sidelined with a stiff back and was to be examined by Mets doctors on Friday to determine his status.
Dominican starter Samuel Deduno and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, last year's National League Cy Young winner, set the tone by dueling through the early innings.
The Americans scored in the first inning on a bases loaded walk to Eric Hosmer by Deduno, who settled down after that and struck out seven in four innings.
Hanley Ramirez tied the game with a mammoth home run to left-center in the second inning and the game stayed at 1-1 until the thrilling finale.
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York, Editing by Julian Linden)