The road to the World Baseball Classic championship is painfully clear for the United States.
Win or go home. Then win or go home again. Then win again, for a third and final time.
That is a tall order for any team, let alone one that is one game over .500 in the history of this tournament. But blue became the predominant color for the red, white and blue on Friday night, after a 6-5 loss to Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico joined Japan and the Netherlands in clinching a spot in the WBC final four next week at Dodger Stadium.
That leaves the United States facing the possibility of missing out on the semifinals for the second straight WBC. The U.S. plays the Dominican Republic on Saturday, and either the home team or the defending champion will not advance to Dodger Stadium.
“It’s pretty simple,” U.S. Manager Jim Leyland said. “We’ve got to win a game.”
The U.S. blew a five-run lead in losing to the Dominican last week.
“These are all great teams,” shortstop Brandon Crawford said. “We figured it would be a down-to-the-last-day kind of thing.”
On Friday, the U.S. staged an improbable rally in the ninth inning. Trailing 6-3, the Americans got the tying run to the plate with none out.
Buster Posey struck out. Paul Goldschmidt struck out. But Crawford tripled home two runs, pulling the U.S. within one run. Josh Harrison struck out for the final out, and the Puerto Rican team exploded onto the field in celebration.
The Puerto Ricans lost in the championship game of the last WBC. They are in the semifinals of this one.
“We’re hoping in God to finish this mission,” Carlos Beltran said.
There was a lively and loud gathering at Petco Park, with an announced crowd of 32,463, double the weeknight crowds here for the WBC. The “U-S-A” chants were in full force at first pitch — and for the final pitches in the dramatic ninth.
In between, the rhythm was all Puerto Rico.
Marcus Stroman gave up six consecutive singles to start the game, putting the U.S. in a 4-0 hole. Nolan Arenado, who has won four consecutive Gold Glove awards, made a throwing error that gave Puerto Rico two runs.
“It’s March 17,” Crawford said. “Not everyone will be 100% on top of their game, whether it’s the umpires or the hitters or the fielders.”
Andrew McCutchen was ejected for arguing a called third strike, although replays showed the pitch was well out of the strike zone.
“Great strike zone tonight, huh?” he said.
Puerto Rico turned up the volume even in batting practice, placing a boom box with a rousing soundtrack just outside the cage. Then came the first inning, and the hit parade.
Team Puerto Rico decided to become Team Blond Hair over the winter, as the players exchanged text messages in anticipation of the tournament. The team is undefeated in the WBC, and the dye job has become all the rage in Puerto Rico.
“What started as a joke has become a national thing,” said Dodgers utility man Enrique Hernandez.
Puerto Rico Manager Edwin Rodriguez squirmed at the question of whether he would follow his players in allowing his hair to be dyed blond.
“I have to do it,” he said. “There’s so much pressure from them.”
Better that kind of pressure than the kind the United States team faces. This might be the best U.S. team yet, but the result will be disappointment if it cannot beat the Dominican Republic on Saturday.
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin