Mexico (1-2) was the first team to be eliminated from the bracket after losing to Canada, 10-3, on Saturday in a game marred by a ninth-inning benches-clearing incident. The win by the U.S. avoided the rules complication of a three-way tie.
"I like the fact that we went into tonight's game knowing that we controlled our destiny," Team USA manager Joe Torre said. "This way, if you win it, you earn it; if you don't, you don't earn it. But at least the Canadian win today was certainly a huge thing for me. And I just felt that you don't have to be checking numbers or anything like that."
Italy, the decided underdog of the pool, punched a ticket to the second round by defeating Mexico and Canada. The Italians (2-1) will be the No. 2 seed if the U.S. wins out or the top seed if Canada triumphs Sunday. The U.S. and Canada are both 1-1.
With every move they make, the Italians are earning newfound respect.
"I think what we showed here tells a lot," Italy manager Marco Mazzieri said. "What these guys did went a long way to show that we deserve more respect from everybody here."
For the U.S. and Canada, Torre said that fracas or not, both teams have the same pressure on the line on Sunday.
"Well, they have the same thing at stake that we do," Torre said. "Fight or no fight, you don't need to get motivated to win a Game 7. And that's what basically this is tomorrow."
Whatever team wins, it will be joined at Marlins Park by Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the squads that advanced from the pool in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this weekend.
The semifinals and final game are in San Francisco's AT&T Park from March 17-19.
Prior to Wright, Jason Varitek hit the only other grand slam, coming in the inaugural Classic on March 8, 2006, right here in a loss to Canada.
Wright's shot off Italy reliever Matt Torra snapped a 2-2 tie and gave the U.S. its first lead in this pool. The U.S. lost to Mexico, 5-2, on Friday night and was behind in that game from the opening inning. The Americans trailed again, 2-0, to Italy after the second, but they sliced the lead in half on Joe Mauer's opposite-field RBI double in the fourth. At the point, the momentum began to swing in Team USA's favor.
"It's emotional," Wright said. "You hear the 'USA' chants, you look up in the stands and you see the flags, you look in the dugout and you see 'USA' across the front of guys' chests and across their hats, and you get caught up in the game and you get a little emotional."
USA second baseman Brandon Phillips singled home the tying run when the U.S. rallied in the fifth, showing its first real offensive pulse of the weekend. With the bases jammed, Wright drilled his homer deep into the bleachers in left-center, giving the U.S. a lead it never relinquished.
"I think all of us take a lot of pride in putting this uniform on and we want to represent the country well," Wright said. "So any time we play a clean, crisp game like we played today, it's good for USA baseball and obviously it's good for our fans and good for the country. So I'm glad I could be a part of that."
Ryan Vogelsong started for the U.S. and earned the win, working into the fifth inning before nearing the 65-pitch limit placed on starters in the first round of the Classic. He allowed two runs on six hits, walked none and struck out four, all of them in a row from the last out of the third through the fourth inning. Ross Detwiler of the Nationals tossed the final four innings of shutout, one-hit ball and was credited with the save.
The last the baseball world saw of Vogelsong, he was helping his Giants this past October win the World Series for the second time in three years. In the postseason, he was 3-0 with a 1.09 ERA in four starts, winning a number of big games as San Francisco had to come from well behind to win each of the first two rounds. The atmosphere in this must-win situation for the U.S. felt like much the same.
"Yeah, it did. It did. It was very similar, same kind of emotions as the postseason last year," he said. "The game was not exactly how I had it planned out in my mind, but it was fun. It was everything I thought it was going to be."
Now, Miami beckons. One more game. One more win. One day more.