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Barry M. Bloom

Gio gets dream start as US opens in Miami

Nationals left-hander is amped as Classic continues in his hometown

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MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

MIAMI -- Gio Gonzalez was so confident Team USA would punch its ticket to his hometown for the second round of the World Baseball Classic, the Washington Nationals left-hander threw a bullpen session in nearby Viera on Sunday and then headed down the freeway to his favorite Miami sports restaurant to watch the Americans' 9-4 win over Canada.

"I was in Flanagan's in Hialeah watching the game, and I was going nuts just having some chicken wings and some water," Gonzalez said. "I knew that Team USA was going to pull this out to get me to Miami to play. I was so confident they were going to win yesterday that after my bullpen I took a trip to Miami and was ready to go."

Gonzalez, filling roster spot No. 28, has his shot at it. He'll start for the U.S. against Puerto Rico and right-hander Mario Santiago on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET at Marlins Park as the Americans open double-elimination play in Pool 2. Italy faces the Dominican Republic in the first game at 1 p.m. ET.

Gonzalez, who was born in Hialeah in the Greater Miami area, has the name of the township embossed in gold script on the side of his red fielder's glove. As the rest of the U.S. literally battled for their Baseball Classic lives this weekend at Chase Field, Gonzalez remained with the Nationals.

According to a prescribed program, Gonzalez made his third start of the spring this past Thursday against the Astros, pitching three innings while allowing no runs and three hits. He's throwing on his regular fifth day on Tuesday night and is fully prepared to stretch to 80 pitches, the maximum allowed in the second round. U.S. manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Greg Maddux plan to keep Gonzalez on regular rest, putting him on target to start a semifinal game in San Francisco's AT&T Park on Sunday or Monday if the U.S. again makes it out of the bracket. The limit for the semis and final game is 95 pitches.

"[The Nationals] had the game plan in line ever since I went to Kissimmee, Fla., to throw the game there," Gonzalez said. "It was under control. They minimized my pitch count. They let me do my thing so I could come out here and be ready for the second round. I'm sure Joe and Greg Maddux were talking to them before that and knew what was in hand getting me ready for the next start.

"But I was extremely looking forward to the start. I've been dying to come home and pitch in front of the home crowd."

Torre has been trying to juggle the goals of bringing home the first Classic title for the U.S. and giving his players enough work to get them Opening Day ready for their respective clubs. To that end, he's been using pitchers on their throw days and working position players into the lineup.

In Sunday's key advancement game against Canada, he started Ben Zobrist in right field and Shane Victorino in left, moves that relegated Ryan Braun to designated hitter and Giancarlo Stanton to the bench. Stanton, the Marlins' right fielder, is slated to be back in the outfield in his home park on Tuesday night.

"I made that commitment when I was asked to do this, and I knew just from being a manager what the feeling was like when players left me," said Torre, who managed the Yankees in 2006 and the Dodgers in '09, when the first two Classics were staged, both won by Team Japan. "The one thing I wanted to do was have the managers and general managers on board. And the only way I could do that is to tell them I'd take care of their players.

"We have to keep in mind that even though it's a postseason format, it's still Spring Training, physically, for these guys. Yeah, you're trying to win, but it's not that tough to do."

So far, Torre has had terrific results. On Sunday, Victorino snapped a Spring Training 0-for with a key RBI single in the eighth-inning comeback. Zobrist was 3-for-5 and scored on Eric Hosmer's bases-loaded double in the ninth that iced the game.

As far as the pitching is concerned, only R.A. Dickey struggled in his first start, putting the Americans in an early 4-0 hole because his knuckleball was flat as they lost to Mexico, 5-2, on Friday night. But Ryan Vogelsong and Ross Detwiler were stellar on Saturday night in a 6-2 win over Italy, and Derek Holland kept the U.S. in the game on Sunday against Canada, leaving after five innings with the score tied, 2-2.

Now it's Gonzalez's turn. And the 27-year-old, who was 21-8 with a 2.89 ERA in 2012, is amped.

He's home and in his element in the art-deco designed ballpark set just off Miami's famous Little Havana neighborhood. Like Monday during the workout, he'll spend ample time signing autographs before he takes the mound.

"Well, to think about it, I'm a small town kid from Hialeah, Fla., pitching for Miami and representing Team USA. That says it all. It's a kid's dream," Gonzalez said, turning toward Torre. "I grew up watching this man right here, leading the Yankees to the World Series. And now to be a part of it and actually be playing for him?

"Don't pinch me. I don't want to wake up!"

Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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