CAROLINA, P.R.–With his theatrics on the mound and flamboyant style, righthander Jose Lima embodies a number of characteristics of Latin American baseball. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was at the center of most 2007 Caribbean Series storylines.
It was shortstop Miguel Tejada (Orioles), however, whose play contributed most heavily to the Dominican Republic’s Caribbean Series championship, reinforcing his stature as the heart and soul of Dominican baseball.
Tejada did not win Series MVP–that honor went to third baseman Tony Batista–but he set the tone for the Dominicans with his all-out play, defensive wizardy and a star power unmatched by any other club’s top player. He hit .304/.448/.522 in 23 at-bats with six runs scored and five RBIs.
And he did it all despite flu-like symptoms that plagued him throughout the tournament.
“I love to play and I love to play for my country,” Tejada said. “I play hard because this means something to me. It means something to the fans and all the people in my home that helped me when I was coming up. To win a Caribbean Series is very special to me.”
The Dominicans were simply outstanding, establishing themselves as the team to beat in the tournament after defeating Venezuela 4-3 in an 18-inning game that lasted 61⁄2 hours in the Series opener. The Dominicans’ thrashing of Mexico and Puerto Rico by a combined score of 21-0 didn’t hurt either, and they won their first five games of the round-robin tournament on their way to a 5-1 record.
Things could have gone either way for the Dominican Republic in the game following their draining tournament-opening win, especially as they were matched up in the early game against a scrappy Mexico team the next day.
But righthander Jose Acevedo (Orioles) pitched eight shutout innings before turning it over to righthander Jose Capellan (Brewers), who whiffed two in the final inning of work. The Dominicans rocked Mexico, 9-0, and the road to the Caribbean Series title was smoothly paved.
In the Dominican Republic’s first showdown with Puerto Rico–attended equally by fans of each club in sold-out Roberto Clemente Walker Stadium–the visiting fans were especially eager to rush the field in celebration of the Dominican’s 12-0 blasting of the home team.
In a scene reminiscent of vintage World Series fan celebrations, the Dominican faithful ran around the entire field, waving flags, playing salsa music, celebrating in the parking lot and honking their car horns.
The Dominicans had a much easier time with Venezuela the second time around, moving to a perfect 4-0 with a 7-1 victory. They stretched their winning streak to five, and all but wrapped up the series, with a 5-3 win over Mexico.
Pitching set the tone for the Dominicans, as Lima, Acevedo, lefthander Fabio Castro (Phillies) and righthander Julian Tavarez (Red Sox) all were brilliant. So was righthander Jose Vargas, a castoff by the Indians who played the last two seasons in Taiwan. The 29-year-old Vargas pitched four scoreless innings in the Series, topped out at 93 mph, and recently signed a one-year deal with the Rangers. In the Series, the Dominicans allowed just eight runs and posted a 1.01 ERA, but credit is due to more than just the arms.
Veteran catcher Alberto Castillo caught every inning of every game in the Series, including the marathon win over Venezuela. The 37-year-old backstop batted .261 with three doubles.
“Castillo was very, very important to our pitching staff throughout the Series, but all season as well,” Dominican manager Felix Fermin said. “Without him, we are not the same club, we don’t have the same confidence, and we definitely don’t have the same experience. Alberto Castillo was a very big reason we won this Series.”
The Dominicans were so balanced, so team-oriented, that second baseman Anderson Hernandez (Mets) was the only player to rank in the top 10 in hitting in the Series–and he barely made it at No. 10.
“This team, it means so much for us to win a championship for the Dominican Republic,” Lima said. “You see them out there. They’re crazy about us and we’re crazy about them. We just came into this Series very loose and relaxed. I wasn’t very relaxed in my first game, but as a team, we won. As a team, we kept it together. Whenever we needed something from somebody we seemed to get it. That’s the sign of a good team.”
PUERTO RICO (4-2): Outfielder Armando Rios hit .545 to lead all tournament batters, edging Mexico outfielder Luis Garcia who hit .458. Puerto Rico placed four players in the top 10 in hitting.
It was the 12-0 loss to the Dominican Republic that stung them, and Venezuela finished any title hopes for Puerto Rico with a 3-1 win in Game Five.
“We kept hearing how we didn’t stand a chance in this series, but this is very disappointing,” Puerto Rico manager Lino Rivera said. “The Dominicans are king, and we’re not happy with second place. We were hoping to bring Puerto Rico back to the top, but that didn’t happen. We are all very sad, but you can be sure we’ll come out and play hard tomorrow regardless of not bringing a title back to Puerto Rico.”
Slugger Juan Gonzalez, who returned to play for Puerto Rico as the team’s DH, batted .385 (10-for-26) but was not a deep threat in the Series.
VENEZUELA (2-4): It was a disappointing Series for Venezuela, a team that came in figuring to match up with the Dominicans. But Miguel Cabrera (Marlins) pulled out of the tournament before the club even left Caracas, and manager Buddy Bailey was forced to use Randall Simon (Phillies) in his cleanup hole.
Simon, though, was declared ineligible for the final game because the Caribbean Baseball Federation had suspended him for three seasons after he violated his contract with Aguilas (Dominican Republic) to sign with Aragua (Venezuela). He will not be able to return to any league in Mexico, Venezuela, the Dominican or Puerto Rico until 2010.
“I’m not going to lie to you, that changed things a little bit for us,” Bailey said. “It put pressure on other guys, but you’ve got to stand up to that pressure. But, really, we never stopped making all these errors. I thought we pitched well. We just didn’t execute when we really needed to.”
The lack of a marquee star proved no detriment to Venezuela’s pitching throughout the tournament. Righthanders Cory Bailey (Cubs) and Tim McClaskey (Phillies) pitched well when they needed to, but the dynamic duo of relievers Francisco Butto (Yankees) and Yorman Bazardo (Tigers) were the most impressive of the bunch.
“Bazardo to me was one of our best relievers all year and he’s got a great changeup,” Buddy Bailey said. “But he’s not a starter. I don’t understand that mentality at all. This guy can light you up with short stints out of the pen, but doesn’t sustain it. He’s showed us some guts in certain situations too. They both have.”
MEXICO (1-5): After getting off to a poor start, the popular storyline with team Mexico was Vinny Castilla’s retirement, and how the veteran third baseman would walk off into the sunset after accepting a job with the Rockies as a special assistant to the general manager.
And even though his final plate appearance turned out to be an intentional walk in a game in which Castilla went 1-for-3 with a double, it was the only game Mexico won in the Series.
“It’s great to go finish my career like this,” Castilla said. “To have my country go out of this tournament a winner is special.”
The area that hurt Mexico most throughout the Series was its outfield defense. Center fielder and catalyst Chris Roberson (Phillies) opted out of the Caribbean Series after his Mexican Pacific League team (Hermosillo) won its title.
So the club was forced to use a combination of Derrick White, Jon Weber (Diamondbacks) and Luis Garcia on the outfield corners, leaving manager Lorenzo Bundy with Alfredo Amezaga (Marlins) and Karim Garcia (Phillies) in center field.
“He decided to go home and prepare for spring training,” Bundy said of Roberson. “It was his decision and I’ll leave it at that.”
And even though the Mexico team won only one game, it still showed character. After getting outscored 33-4 over its first three games, Mexico lost two close ones–4-2 to Puerto Rico and 5-3 to the Dominican Republic.
“We played hard, but really, not one break went our way until the last day,” Bundy said. “Our guys could have thrown in the towel, but I could have told you they’d never do that.
“They haven’t done that all year–and not that we ran up against teams like these every day–but they always want to win. We’re proud to wear these red, white and green uniforms and represent this country.”