Figueroa silences doubters with superb start
Puerto Rico righty allows just two hits over six scoreless innings against USA
MIAMI -- Hearing what he couldn't do helped inspire Nelson Figueroa to show what he actually still can do.
At 38, and out of Major League Baseball since 2011, Figueroa entered Friday night feeling he had plenty to prove.
The right-hander indeed stepped up, dissecting Team USA over six scoreless innings in Puerto Rico's 4-3 upset victory in Round 2 of the World Baseball Classic.
To the surprise of many, Puerto Rico has stamped its ticket to the semifinals in San Francisco, while the United States has been eliminated.
Just three nights earlier, Team USA beat Puerto Rico, 7-1. The win put the USA in what was an enviable position of having to win one of two games. But it lost both, including a 3-1 contest to the Dominican Republic on Thursday.
Now, behind Figueroa's crafty pitching and Andy Gonzalez's two-run double in the sixth inning, Puerto Rico is joining the Dominican squad in San Francisco.
Even though the formality of who is advancing out west has been decided, Round 2 at Marlins Park has one game to go. At 1 p.m. ET on Saturday, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic will square off to determine seeding in the semifinals.
To Figueroa, who appeared in 145 big league games over nine seasons, Friday's performance is one of the most gratifying of his career.
"The fact of the matter is we were the supreme underdogs against that USA lineup," Figueroa said. "I sat up watching MLB Network, and I heard all the things that I couldn't do and I could do. So it was motivation to show what kind of pitcher I was."
A journeyman in the big leagues, Figueroa broke in with the D-backs in 2000. He also played for the Phillies, Mets, Pirates, Brewers and Astros. Now he has the distinction of leading Puerto Rico to the semifinals.
"He kept us off-balance," USA's Brandon Phillips said. "He was hitting his spots."
There was nothing fancy about how the right-hander held the United States hitless through three innings. He threw strikes, mixed speeds and completely had the United States searching for answers.
Phillips had USA's first hit, a single to open the fourth. And in the sixth, Jimmy Rollins added a single. That was it off Figueroa.
Team USA struggled to make solid contact on the right-hander, who kept them off-stride with a fastball that rarely reached 88 mph.
"I go against the book sometimes," Figueroa said. "I don't throw very hard, but I'll pitch inside. A lot of times they'll sit outside, waiting for that breaking ball, and they won't get it."
Working with All-Star catcher Yadier Molina made it easy for Figueroa to execute his game plan.
"It was a great exhibition of what can be done without having a plus fastball," Figueroa said. "Yadier had a great plan. I didn't really have to shake him off, if at all. It was an opportunity to show that good pitching beats good hitting."
The United States roster featured all current big leaguers, while Puerto Rico certainly had stars like Molina, Carlos Beltran and Angel Pagan. But it also had players who were ex-big leaguers, and some former Minor Leaguers.
Gonzalez, a 31-year-old third baseman, played in 91 big league games in parts of three seasons. His last big league chance came in 2009 with the Marlins.
Yet, in the sixth inning, with the bases full, it was Gonzalez who swatted a two-run double to left field, making it 4-0.
"I'm a guy who hasn't had much time in the big leagues," Gonzalez said. "I can say it was the biggest at-bat for me. It was great. This is what every baseball player dreams about, having a big AB like this. I'm grateful we came out on top."
In the late innings, Team USA rallied, but J.C. Romero, a 14-year MLB lefty reliever, slammed the door with a four-out save.
"We've been against the wall," Romero said. "Nobody gave us a chance. But you know what? That room in there, they believe in themselves. They believe that on paper, you don't win the World Series, and you don't win the WBC. You've got to execute. You've got to play the game between those lines. That's what we did tonight.
"For me, that was very special. I know for my teammates, it's been very special as well. I've been through a lot the last few years. This save was very rewarding for me. I hope I can build something very positive from this."