Venezuela rises to the occasion in the pool of death

Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

MIAMI – Welcome to the pool of death. Three of the best teams in the World Baseball Classic – the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela – came to Miami last weekend knowing that only two of them would still be there last Friday. (Sorry to Israel and Nicaragua, the minnows have fallen unceremoniously into the shark tank.) And according to the schedule, it was Venezuela who seemed to draw the shortest straw, opening pool play against the Dominican Republic on Saturday night, and after Puerto Rico, the runner-up of the 2017 tournament, just 24 hours later. The choices before Venezuela: sink or swim.

“When you talk about the lake of death, when you say that Venezuela had the most complicated journey, we Venezuelans are used to that, right?” manager Omar Lopez said before Sunday night’s game. “We are used to complications, difficult times, adversity. Somehow we overcome these obstacles and that’s how we’re going to play here.”

And that’s exactly what Venezuela did. With a big bat and some stunning fielding, Lopez’s side romped to back-to-back wins over fellow Latin American super-clubs, taking control of Pool D and effectively securing the team a spot in the quarterfinals and a date with Pool C runner-up up in miami a week from now. On Saturday, Venezuela held off a stacked Dominican lineup and brought NL Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara to its home ballpark in a 5-1 shocker. On Sunday, they scored seven runs in the first two innings en route to a 9-6 victory over Puerto Rico. The weekend was a raucous party in Caracas, soundtracked by thousands of fans in red, blue and yellow, every instrument and strike – outdone only by Venezuela’s players who poured out of the dugout to celebrate almost every success.

“We knew on paper that these two were the most difficult matches, but at the same time, it’s the most fun challenge,” Venezuela starter Pablo López said after shutting out Puerto Rico. “I’m sick of thinking about it.”

There is no shortage of impact players on Venezuela’s roster. Few countries can boast a top half of the lineup with an MVP (Jose Altuve), a five-tool superstar (Ronald Acuña Jr.) and a batting champion (Luis Arraez). But the presence of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and their equally star-studded rosters in Pool D made Venezuela the most likely of the three to finish on the outside looking in. “Some people didn’t believe in our team.” Omar Lopez said Sunday night. “They said we would be wiped out. Even in our country, people criticized me.”

Not that betting on Venezuela in the WBC was a winning proposition. The history of the country here is mainly tortured. His best finish is third, dating back to 2009, and his overall record in this year’s tournament was just 13–12. In 2013, Venezuela failed to make it out of the group stage, falling to both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Four years later, they were beaten by Puerto Rico in pool play and advanced only because of some complicated and controversial tiebreaker rules that saw them get past Mexico and into a tiebreaker game with Italy. they narrowly won that game, but were sent home in the second round by the Dominican Republic and the United States.

These Venezuelan teams were not lacking in talent either. the 2009 team is possibly the best the country has ever fielded, with an MVP-starring Miguel Cabrera along with a young Félix Hernández, Bobby Abreu, Magglio Ordoñez and Francisco Rodríguez setting a new single-season save record. But it was never enough to overcome the game’s elite teams, leaving Venezuela as something closer to the best than the rest. You could largely blame it on poor pitching and a lack of rotation depth. The 2013 team went from third overall to a bounce in the playoffs in part because they were without Hernandez, who left the roster after signing his $175 million extension with the Mariners in February. Instead, the Dominican Republic dropped Aníbal Sánchez in the first goal and Venezuela was left to start Carlos Zambrano in a must-win game against Puerto Rico. When Hernandez returned in 2017, it was a fade of his peak self, though even King Felix would struggle to lift a team where the next best arm was either Jules Chacin or Martin Perez.

This time, though, Venezuela has the kind of personnel that could be good and deep enough to extend their stay in Miami if they can complete their conquest of the Pool of Death. Pérez, who netted the move against the Dominican Republic, is coming off his best season as a professional. Luis Garcia followed with three impressive innings, striking out six. On Sunday, López limited Puerto Rico to just one run over 4.2 highly efficient frames, striking out five and getting 12 whiffs, in his now-former ballpark. “It still feels like my mound,” he said afterward.

What was new to him was the sellout crowd of 35,000 plus heartbreakers at each stadium. Most of them were decked out in Puerto Rican jerseys or wrapped in the island’s flag, but each of Lopez’s strikes drew thunderous cheers from the Venezuelan fans packed mostly into the sections behind the first base dugout. “I felt the energy when they announced the lineups,” said López, who threw 97 mph in the first inning and averaged 95 on the night. “The adrenaline rush that everyone told me about at the World Series or the people who were at the World Baseball Classic … it’s a beautiful feeling.”

That energy was there with every run in Venezuela, too. Anthony Santander’s homer off José Berríos got the party started early, a three-run shot golfed into the visiting bullpen that left Puerto Rico swinging just five hits into the night. As Santander rounded the bases, roared and beat its chest, the Venezuelan flag waved from a thousand different places throughout the stadium. A short while later, Salvador Perez crushed a three-run homer of his own, setting off a cascading wave of screams, boos and boos. Crossing home plate and walking through the crowd of teammates bouncing in front of him, Perez emphatically drew his hands over his country’s name on his shirt. The message was unmistakably clear: The night – and the lake of death – firmly belonged to Venezuela.

Pool D Sunday notes

  • Next up for Venezuela: a day off on Monday, then a midday tilt with Nicaragua on Tuesday that will seal the group. Eduardo Rodriguez will start that game for Venezuela.
  • Meanwhile, the pool-closing matchup between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic will almost certainly decide which of the two qualifies as the runner-up. It’s not official: Both teams have yet to play Israel, and the Dominican Republic, which was off Sunday, also has Nicaragua on its schedule. But assuming they both take on Pool D’s weaker teams, it will be a win-or-go-home game on Wednesday night in Miami. You will be able to hear this crowd from space.
  • As for Nicaragua and Israel, the latter rallied to beat the former in Sunday’s opener, scoring three runs in the eighth. Tough for Nicaragua, who led 1–0 through seven, the game fell apart at the hands of the team’s best pitcher, Jonathan Loaisiga. The Yankees reliever gave up a game-tying single to Blue Jays shortstop Spencer Horwitz after pitching two with one out, then oddly issued an intentional walk to Cardinals shortstop Noah Mendlinger after a first-pitch hit. loading the bases. A force out followed, but Phillies backup catcher Garrett Stubbs broke the tie with a two-run double to give Israel its first win of this WBC and keep Nicaragua winless.
  • Berríos’ short start — one inning (plus two batters in the second) with six runs allowed (five earned) — not only forced Puerto Rico manager Yadier Molina to burn many of his bullpen as he used seven pitchers to end the game , but it also raises the question of whether the Blue Jays righty is a viable option going forward. Berríos managed just three swings and misses in his 38 pitches, with too many hits and too few chases. Again, Molina doesn’t have many other options. turns to journeyman reliever Jose De Leon against Israel on Monday night and the team has no established players beyond Berrios and Marcus Stroman, who pitched against Nicaragua on Saturday. “Anyone can have a bad day,” Molina said of Berríos after Sunday’s loss. “It didn’t go well, but we have confidence in him.”

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