SAN FRANCISCO—Puerto Rico got a day off after its emotional World Baseball Classic semifinal victory against Japan, and Edwin Rodriguez didn't seem to mind. Remember, the Puerto Rican team played Saturday afternoon in Miami, flew cross-country, then played Japan last night in front of a fairly pro-Japanese crowd against a team that had been on West Coast time for several days.
Rodriguez was more welcoming of the "mental rest" for his players than the "physical rest, but there's no doubt that it will help."
Not surprisingly, Rodriguez announced righthander Giancarlo Alvarado as his starter. The former Dodgers farmhand went to Carlo Alvarado as a minor leaguer and went 13-10, 3.49 in his last season in the States, at Triple-A Albuquerque. Since then, he has pitched in Japan's NPB, spending two years with the Hiroshima Carp and another with the Yokohama BayStars.
After pitching well for Ponce in the Puerto Rican League this winter (3-2, 3.04), he's been effective in the WBC so far, striking out eight and walking one in 8.1 innings. He's 1-0, 2.16 in the Classic, beating Spain with four scoreless innings on March 8, then tossed four more scoreless innings before giving up three runs in the fifth during a 4-3 win against Italy in Pool 2.
The gravity of his role helping to replace injured ace Javier Vazquez and in trying to strike a blow for what has been seen as Puerto Rico's declining baseball fortunes are not lost on the 35-year-old Alvarado.
"Honestly, I've been waiting for this for many years," he said. "(I got) an opportunity to open up the (Classic) and to close it off for Puerto Rico. I'm really grateful. I'm just going to give 100 percent for my country.
"I think it would be a good thing for my country. They need it so badly for professional baseball . . . We really need to lift our players up. They have been down. I've been watching these games intensely. Baseball and boxing in Puerto Rico are major sports. The biggest thing. I know people are watching this. Everyone knows who we are."
Dominicans Notice Being The Favorite Means Little
The Dominican Republic certainly noticed Puerto Rico's upset of Japan, which was the two-time champion and was favored to win at least that semifinal. As a heavy favorite against the Netherlands, how could they not?
"Well, I was not surprised at all," said Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, who is 14-for-27 in the Classic for the DR. " Like Tony (Pena) said, both teams make it all the way to the semifinals because have great talent, both did their job. You don't want to go out and take any thing for granted. We don't think we are a favorite. We've got to go out there and perform. It's not about paper. You've got to go out on the field and perform."
Pena, the Dominican manager, has the luxury of a lineup of big leaguers up and down the lineup, with left fielder Ricardo Nanita as the lone exception, and Nanita was benched Tuesday for the Blue Jays' Moises Sierra, who has big league experience.
He's also starting big league righty Edinson Volquez on the mound Monday night against Dutch lefty Diegomar Markwell, who hasn't pitched in the U.S. minors since 2003. Behind Volquez, he has the best bullpen in the tournament, one replete with hard throwers. Relievers Santiago Casilla (four scoreless innings), Octavio Dotel (3.2 IP), Kelvin Herrera (2.1 IP) and Pedro Strop (4.2 IP) have formed a scoreless bridge to closer Fernando Rodney, who has appeared in all six games for the Dominicans. He's earned five saves and given up one hit.
Pena still will take nothing for granted, particularly against the Dutch, who beat the DR twice in 2009's Classic. Both rosters have changed significantly since then, so Pena isn't buying comparisons. What he is buying is the importance of the WBC to his country.
"We are here representing our country, and our country is about baseball," Pena said in English. "It's not about anything else. We grew up with a stick in our hands. We are representing 10 million people from our country. Winning right here is totally different (from the big leagues) . . .
"This means a lot to us, to represent our country. Because there's no question, no question, those games right now, they are high energy games. You cannot leave anything in the clubhouse or at home. You've got to go out and give it everything you've got."
Cano added, "This is about what the country sees growing up, they teach you how to play baseball. And now it's a chance that you're going to have every four years. It's not that you say, 'OK, we get it next year.' You don't know if you're going to be here again next (time)."
As expected, No. 1 prospect Jurickson Profar will play second base and bat second in the Dutch lineup. He shifts Orioles prospect Jonathan Schoop to third base, and Schoop bats seventh.
Nationals outfielder Roger Bernadina, who missed the Netherlands' last game March 12 in Tokyo due to a wrist injury, is back in the lineup batting third.