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Team USA's WBC run could be defined by game against red-hot Puerto Rico

OK, so Mike Trout and Anthony Rizzo and Clayton Kershaw aren’t playing for the United States in the World Baseball Classic. Well, in an exciting 4-2 victory over Venezuela on Wednesday, Adam Jones homered in the eighth inning to tie it, Eric Hosmer hit a two-run homer a few batters later to win it, and Drew Smyly did his best Kershaw impersonation, allowing just one unearned run with eight strikeouts in 4⅔ innings, including whiffing the final six batters he faced: Martin Prado, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Rougned Odor, Alcides Escobar and Carlos Gonzalez.

Presumably pumped up by the WBC environment and knowing he was on a strict pitch count, Smyly's fastball averaged 92.4 mph, compared to 90.2 last season. Or maybe the Mariners have unlocked something in his delivery, since he was also throwing harder in his spring training outing last week. His final pitch to Gonzalez clocked in at 94.4. It wasn’t just the increased velocity; he threw some nice fadeaway cutters and a swing-and-miss curve. Remember, Smyly has had some good periods of pitching before. Over a 35-start stretch from June 2014 through early May of last season, sandwiched around an injury in 2015 that limited him to 12 starts, he had a 2.90 ERA over 211 innings. Mariners fans had to be very happy with what they saw.

Anyway, the U.S. now faces Puerto Rico in its second game of the second round, Friday night at San Diego's Petco Park (10 p.m. ET, ESPN Deportes). Both teams won their openers, so the winner sits in a strong position to advance to the semifinals. Puerto Rico, looking to go 5-0 in the tournament, sends Mets right-hander Seth Lugo to the mound against Marcus Stroman. On Saturday, the U.S. faces the Dominican Republic in a rematch of their epic first-round encounter, with Danny Duffy facing Ervin Santana.

Lugo, an obscure 34th-round pick out of Centenary College in Louisiana, was pressed into service in the Mets’ rotation in 2016 after a slew of injuries even though he had an ugly 6.50 ERA at Triple-A Las Vegas. Like teammate Robert Gsellman, he pitched much better once he escaped the high altitude of Vegas, posting a 2.67 ERA over 64 innings in the majors. After allowing a .329 average for Vegas, he allowed a .220 average with the Mets. In the process, he became a folk hero among the stathead crowd when it was discovered his curveball had the highest spin rate in the majors -- including a "record" 3,498 rpm for one pitch, if you’re keeping track (the average MLB curveball average is 2,469 rpm).

That could explain part of his problems in Las Vegas; harder to spin the ball at higher altitude. With the Mets, he relied on his low-90s fastball, throwing it 57 percent of the time, and actually threw his slider a little more often than his curveball. The curveball, however, was his go-to strikeout weapon, with a 35 percent strikeout rate and a swing-and-miss rate of 34 percent. Batters hit .235 against it in a small sample of 37 plate appearances ending with the pitch. Nobody seems to know exactly what profile the 27-year-old will fit moving forward, particularly with a crowded Mets rotation that will be difficult to crack and his mediocre track record in the minors, but Lugo is certainly capable of delivering a big game for Puerto Rico.

Stroman was excellent against the Dominican in his first start in the WBC, tossing 4⅔ scoreless innings. It will be interesting to see the strategy manager Jim Leyland uses with the U.S. bullpen. Stroman threw 64 pitches in that game and can be extended to 80 in the second round, but Leyland can also rely on a deep pen that had a day off after the victory over Venezuela, so there shouldn’t be a need to push Stroman all the way to 80 pitches unless he's dealing zeroes again. Andrew Miller faced one batter Wednesday and threw just four pitches, so he’s available, potentially for more than three outs if needed (Leyland intended to do that when he faced the Dominican Republic in the first round, only to see Nelson Cruz and Starling Marte homer). Luke Gregerson got the save against Venezuela, so he might be the closer here.

Leyland is probably reluctant to use relievers on back-to-back days -- especially Miller, as I’m sure Terry Francona has told him to be careful with his guy considering the extra innings he threw last October -- so worrying about Saturday plays into the bullpen strategy as well. I’d go all-out to beat Puerto Rico and then worry about the state of your pitching against the Dominican on Saturday.

The U.S. catches a bit of a break there, as they won’t face Johnny Cueto, who won’t be joining the D.R. unless it makes the championship round. The key is scoring runs off Santana, as the D.R. will be in a must-win situation, meaning manager Tony Pena will want to rely on the strength of his pitching staff, a bullpen that includes Hector Neris, Alex Colome, Dellin Betances, Hansel Robles, Fernando Rodney and Jeurys Familia.

Duffy was brilliant against Canada, but Canada isn’t the Dominican Republic. Other than Robinson Cano, the D.R. will probably run out eight right-handed or switch-hitters, and Duffy had a huge platoon split last season: .760 OPS allowed against righties compared to .449 against lefties. Depending on what happens Friday, Leyland might have to consider a quicker hook on Duffy and go to the righties in his bullpen. Winning the pool is important as well, as you’d presumably rather face the Netherlands than Japan in the semifinals, given the lack of major league pitchers on the Netherlands staff (although Kenley Jansen will be joining the team). You also get an extra day off before the championship game, playing Monday and Wednesday rather than Tuesday and Wednesday.

It will be fun to see who steps up in the U.S. lineup. Hosmer had among the worst adjusted numbers of any of the hitters on the team last season, but Leyland has been playing him at first base and batting him fifth (and using Paul Goldschmidt at designated hitter). Hosmer rewarded that faith with his big home run off Hector Rondon. Alex Bregman played shortstop Wednesday, but I expect we’ll see Brandon Crawford back out there. Keep in mind that Puerto Rico actually knocked the U.S. out of the tournament in 2013, with a 4-3 victory in a different format than this year’s round-robin. Hosmer, Jones and Giancarlo Stanton likely remember that game: All three were in the lineup and went a combined 2-for-12.