By Eric Edwards
February 6, 2003
Venezuela 5, Dominican Republic 3
Instead of speeding away from the pack Thursday, the Dominican Republic turned the Caribbean Series on a dime, falling to Venezuela 5-3 to make this tournament interesting again.
After winning three one-run games–two in extra innings–while compiling a perfect 4-0 record, the Dominicans' luck ran out Thursday. Now 4-1, they must beat 0-5 Puerto Rico Friday night at 8 p.m. or be forced to play a tie-breaking game for the title Saturday night between the winner of Friday's 4 p.m. game between Mexico (3-2) and Venezuela (3-2).
Starting pitcher Claudio Vargas, one of the heroes in the Dominicans' come-from-behind run to the title in Puerto Rico last year, won't repeat that distinction after his performance Thursday.
Venezuela pounced on him early, scoring four runs in the first two innings to knock Vargas from the box just four outs into the game.
His command was the primary reason. Luis Rodriguez opened the game by drawing a walk before Magglio Ordonez, Alex Cabrera and Miguel Cabrera delivered consecutive singles as Venezuela scored twice in the opening inning.
Vargas dug himself another hole in the second, walking Tom Evans and Alex Delgado to open the inning and was facing a bases-loaded jam when Miguel Tejada couldn't come up with an infield grounder by Luis Ordaz.
Ordonez then made sure Vargas paid a price, plating two more runs with a single to bring Dominican manager Manny Acta out for a pitching change.
Venezuela added its final run in the sixth when Delgado doubled and scored on a single by Rodriguez.
After flailing fruitlessly against Venezuela starter Ricardo Palma for five innings, the Dominican Republic finally made a dent in the sixth. A single by Rafael Furcal and double from Tejada put runners at second and third before David Ortiz brought both home with a hit centerfield.
That ended the night for Palma, who was replaced by Elio Serrano. Jose Offerman greeted him with a single, and Izzy Alcantara plated Ortiz with a sacrifice fly.
The Dominicans, however, failed to mount another threat, and Venezuelan closer Francisco Rodriguez came on in the ninth to make sure it stayed that way, striking out the side to end the game.
The Dominican Republic will send out righthander Rafael Soriano Friday against Puerto Rico's veteran righthander Omar Olivares. Mexico's Rigo Beltran, who ended Team USA's bid for a spot in the 2004 Olympics in November's regional qualifier in Panama, will start for Mexico against Venezuela's Dan Murray.
Mexico 6, Puerto Rico 5
Mexico's late-night letdown against the Dominican Republic Wednesday left it with a Thursday hangover. Fortunately the Mexicans found an elixir, rallying for a 6-5 victory over Puerto Rico in 12 innings to keep their hopes alive in the Caribbean Series.
Jose Macias, the team's offensive sparkplug through its first four games of the six-day round-robin tournament, again played a central role, reaching base on a fielding error by the opposing manager's son, Jose Enrique Cruz. He then took second on a balk by closer Justin Lehr and third on a sacrifice bunt by Benji Gil. When Kit Pellow lofted a medium depth fly out to centerfield, Macias decided to test the arm of Raul Gonzalez–and passed, sliding in well ahead of Gonzalez's off-line throw.
That run proved the difference for a Mexican team that continues to gain respect after winning titles in 1996 and 2002.
"Mexican baseball has risen to a different level," said Mexico manager Paquin Estrada, who is trying to manage a record third team to a Series title. "I think people have to recognize that now. We're not the ugly duckling of this tournament anymore."
His pitching staff is the main reason why. With a starting rotation that includes major leaguers Elmer Dessens, Rodrigo Lopez and Oliver Perez and a deep bullpen that features Montreal Expos setup man Luis Ayala, Mexico has been in every game in this competition. Its only two losses have been one-run squeakers to the Dominican Republic.
"Our pitching staff has to be considered among the best here," Estrada said.
Ayala was a big factor Thursday. He didn't allow a hit over 2 2/3 innings, retiring the side in order in the 12th to get the win. Ayala allowed just one batter to reach base–on an intentional walk in the 10th–and struck out three.
Mexico improves its record in the competition to 3-2 and remained in the hunt after Venezuela erased the Dominican Republic's perfect record in Thursday's late game. Puerto Rico, which has blown late inning leads in three of its losses, remains winless at 0-5, but still could play the spoiler should its contest with the 4-1 Dominicans at 8 p.m. Friday night. Should Puerto Rico spring the upset, the winner of the 4 p.m. Mexico-Venezuela game would move to 4-2 and stand tied with the Dominicans, forcing a one-game playoff for the title Saturday night.
Puerto Rico scored all of its runs Thursday in the first three innings, but couldn't hold on to a 5-3 advantage. Melvin Nieves was again a thorn in the side of his native Puerto Rico, hitting a two-out, two-run home run off Dicky Gonzalez in the eighth inning to square the score at 5-5.
Gonzalez had been sailing along in relief of Puerto Rico starter Adrian Burnside, striking out nine and not allowing a run after coming on with two outs in the third inning.
But two batters after Luis C. Garcia lined a single up the middle, Gonzalez left a changeup higher in the zone than he would have liked, and Nieves pounced on it to knot the game.
"I'm disillusioned," said Gonzalez, the losing pitcher in Puerto Rico's loss to the Dominican Republic Monday. "I threw him I pitch I thought he wouldn't be able to do much with."
Released by Santurce nine games into Puerto Rico's winter season, Nieves went unclaimed by the league's other five teams, ultimately landing with Mexican League champion Culiacan. He hit a two-run home run in the first meeting between the two sides Tuesday that helped change the tone of that contest. Mexico won 10-4.
Early on, the Mexicans were clearly flat the day after another draining loss to their Dominican hosts. A deflating, 4-3 defeat–in 10 innings–had dealt a serious setback to their chances, and they initially played Thursday like they were demoralized.
Puerto Rico teed off on starter Edgar Gonzalez from the opening bell, scoring three times in the opening inning, prompting Estrada to make a pitching change just two outs into the game.
After Gonzalez opened the game by striking out Gabby Martinez, he walked Robinson Cancel. Luis Lopez then doubled to center field, scoring Cancel. Lopez scored two batters later on a single by Val Pascucci. Carlos Rivera and Juan LeBron followed with two more singles, LeBron's hit plating Pascucci for a 3-0 lead.
Mexico got a run back in the second when Pellow led off the inning by turning around a first-pitch fastball from Burnside and depositing it over the fence.
Mexico reliever Jorge Campillo ran into trouble fast in the second. Cruz opened with a double and scored on a single by Cancel two batters later.
Mexico again had an answer as Adan Amezcua led off the third with a single and scored on a line drive by ninth hitter Miguel Ojeda that just cleared the left field wall.
LeBron, installed two games ago to bring some added pop to the lineup, hit a towering shot over the left field wall in the bottom of the third for a 5-3 advantage.
With Gonzalez and Campillo on a roll, the game remained that way until the 12th.
Puerto Rico had a chance to end it in the 10th, putting runners on first and second with two outs, but with veteran switch-hitter Carlos Baerga on the bench, manager Jose Cruz elected not to pinch-hit for his righthanded hitting son. Jose Enrique Cruz who looked badly overmatched while striking out against Ayala.
The decision would backfire again in the 12th when Cruz misplayed a routine roller by Macias, leading to the decisive run.
Dominican Republic (Licey) 4-1
Mexico (Culiacan) 3-2
Venezuela (Aragua) 3-2
Puerto Rico (Ponce) 0-5