MIAMI -- As the fifth-place hitter and a motivating force for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, Mets third baseman David Wright is driven by professionalism, patriotism and pride. But he has one purely selfish motive, too: He would like to put a muzzle on a longtime friend.
Wright was limbering up pregame at Marlins Park on Tuesday when former Mets teammate Jose Reyes dropped by the premises to engage in some good-natured banter, with a side order of braggadocio. Reyes is the starting shortstop and leadoff hitter for the Dominican Republic's WBC entry, which will play Team USA on Thursday night at 7 ET. The winner will remain undefeated in the second round of the WBC and earn a trip to the final round in San Francisco early next week to face Japan or the Netherlands in the semifinals. The loser will have to scramble a bit, playing Puerto Rico on Friday in an elimination game.
From their formative years together in the New York organization, Wright loves Reyes like a brother. But he knows from personal experience that his former left-side-of-the-infield buddy can get awfully chatty when his competitive juices start flowing. Tuesday was definitely one of those occasions.
"It's funny how it worked out," Wright said. "We were using their weight room to get loose when their team finished up. He found out I was in there and started running his mouth already. He's a character. Jose can talk, so the last thing I want to do is give him the upper hand as far as the trash talk."
All that talk will translate into action Thursday night, and both teams have the talent to back it up on the field. The USA roster features 14 All-Stars (it was 16 before Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira and Cleveland closer Chris Perez had to back out because of injury), and the Dominicans have seven. The American roster includes three MVP winners (Joe Mauer, Ryan Braun and Jimmy Rollins), and the Dominican boasts one: Miguel Tejada.
This is the matchup a lot of people have focused on in the WBC brackets since the tournament began, in a Duke-North Carolina or Novak Djokovic-Roger Federer sort of way. Two nations with proud baseball legacies and brief histories of Classic flameouts are set to meet for the first time in WBC play. And even if the results will be strictly symbolic, try telling that to the participants.
The Americans are trying to make this a memorable experience after failing to survive the second round in 2006 and losing to Japan in the semifinals in 2009. If you had a dollar for every time an American player has said it's a "special thrill" to wear the uniform with "USA" stitched across the chest, you could help Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria field a team that's good enough to contend in the National League East.
The Dominicans failed to advance beyond the semifinals in 2006 despite a roster that included Albert Pujols, David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre, then suffered the ultimate indignity in 2009 when they lost twice to the Netherlands in the opening round. This year, manager Tony Pena's team has been a focused and motivated group from the outset, since D.R. president Danilo Medina delivered a speech urging the Dominican players to "lift up the country" with their performance.
Mr. President didn't say anything about using the whole field, concentrating extra hard with runners in scoring position or running the bases aggressively, but the Dominican squad has been doing that with aplomb. During first-round play in Puerto Rico, the Dominicans beat up on some mediocre pitching, hitting .324 and scoring 19 runs in three games. In the Pool 2 opener Tuesday, they fell behind early against Italy before some airtight relief pitching and a whole lot of Robinson Cano helped them pull out a 5-4 victory.
Cano is hitting .615 (16-for-26) since leaving Yankees camp to put on the Dominican uniform in exhibition and WBC play, so something about wearing the Dominican colors and standing for the national anthem, "Quisqueyanos Valientes," clearly strikes a chord with him.
"Robby is very special, and there's really no weakness in this kid," said USA manager Joe Torre, who knows Cano well from their days together in New York. "He scares you because he's got a great deal of confidence. I know a lot of people see him smile and they don't think he cares, but that couldn't be further from the truth."
The American team appears to be gaining momentum as the tournament progresses. A sense of desperation was apparent during the Arizona leg, particularly after Team USA lost its pool-play opener to Mexico and had to rally to beat both Italy and Canada. But Torre's team looked a lot more confident and self-assured in a second-round 7-1 victory over Puerto Rico on Tuesday. Gio Gonzalez pitched well before his hometown fans, and the Americans spread the wealth offensively.
Wright, perpetuating the New York-centric theme in Miami, seems to have been in the middle of everything. He produced the biggest hit of the first round, a grand slam to lift the Americans over Italy, and is hitting .438 (7-for-16) with a tournament-high 10 RBIs. WBC watchers have begun referring to him as Captain America -- a designation that elicits a smile and a shrug from Wright.
R.A. Dickey, whose Cy Young-caliber knuckleball deserted him in his WBC debut, will take the mound Thursday against 29-year-old Samuel Deduno, who has spent the past three seasons with the Rockies, Padres and Twins. Once Deduno departs, things should only get more challenging for the U.S. The Dominican bullpen comes at opponents in waves, with Octavio Dotel, Santiago Casilla, Kelvin Herrera, Alfredo Simon and Pedro Strop among the relievers lined up to get the ball to closer Fernando Rodney.
"That's one thing about the Dominican team -- everybody comes out there throwing at least 95," said Team USA center fielder Adam Jones.
The importance of the moment was readily apparent Wednesday when Torre gave his players the day off and about 15 members of the U.S. squad decided at breakfast that they wanted to take a spin over to Marlins Park for optional hitting and a workout. The skies are sunny and the temperature is in the mid-70s in South Florida, but baseball takes precedence over rest and relaxation at the moment.
How much are the U.S. players looking forward to the Dominican matchup?
"Oh, man," Jones said. "This is why you play for your country -- to go up against a team that's just as good as you are. That team is stacked. But, hey, so are we. We're both going to bring our A-games. We're not going to make it easy on them, and we know they're not going to make it easy on us."
It's time for the trash talk to end and the baseball to begin. If Wright and Reyes thought things were interesting in the weight room, they haven't seen anything yet.