by Matt Meyers
March 10, 2006
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.–With the order of finish in Pool D determined on Thursday night, there was really nothing left to play for between the Dominican Republic and Australia on Friday night, but don’t tell that to the Dominican fans.
Like they had all week, the continued to chant, dance and sing well into the evening, and long after their countrymen had secured a 6-4 victory.
The game actually was that tight. After going scoreless for the first two games of the tournament while managing just two hits, the Aussies finally got on the board in the first when Trent Durrington lead off with a walk and stole second. The second baseman advanced to third on a sharp single to right by left fielder Gavin Fingleson and scored on a sacrifice fly by Brett Roneberg, the DH.
Their only lead would not last long. In the second inning, the Dominicans caught a break when a Miguel Tejada’s leadoff pop up to short left field fell harmlessly between shortstop Brad Harman and Fingleson when the two could not communicate on who should catch it. After a walk and an infield hit, catcher Alberto Castillo drove home two with a double down the left-field line to give the Dominicans a lead they would never relinquish.
The lead eventually reached 6-2, but the Aussies showed some resiliency in the ninth as they rallied for two runs and put the tying run at the plate, but pinch-hitter Glenn Williams fouled out to third to end the game.
After the loss to Venezuela, Australian manager Jon Deeble commented that his players really have trouble with above-average velocity, because they don’t get to see it that much. But they made the necessary adjustments in their third game to put four runs on the board, earning a fair share of respect in the process.
“It was funny, in the last inning they brought in a new pitcher who was throwing 95 and we all looked at each other and were like, ‘ah, it’s just another one of those,’” said first baseman Justin Huber of the Royals, Australia’s top prospect. “That is the game, you make adjustments as you go along. Good players do that, and we have a lot of good players.
“If you face those pitchers every day, it is only natural that you are going to get better at hitting those guys.”
Though they clinched first place in Pool D with Australia’s loss to Venezuela on Thursday, the Dominicans’ victory on Friday made them the only undefeated team in the pool. They will advance to the second stage of pool play, along with Venezuela, which will take place in San Juan.
The Venezuelans will open play in Pool Two on Sunday afternoon against Cuba. Like in the first round, the Venezuelans will open with lefty Johan Santana on the hill. As arguably the best pitcher in the world, the Venezuelans have an edge against anyone whenever he starts, though that advantage did them little good in their first game against the Dominican Republic as they lost 11-5.
The pitching situation will be different in Round Two, because pitchers will be allowed to throw 85 pitches per game as opposed to 65 in the first round. This will be extremely advantageous to a team like Venezuela, whose strength lies in its starting pitching.
Venezuela used piggyback starters in the first round, with Carlos Zambrano relieving Santana in the opener and Freddy Garcia giving way to Carlos Silva in game two. Manager Luis Sojo will have the option of changing his strategy to use Santana, Zambrano and Garcia as his starters and picking his spots of when to use Silva, who was extremely effective against Italy, and Kelvim Escobar, who started against Australia. Santana, Zambrano and Garcia would seem like the choices, to start, but Silva and Escobar were impressive in their outings.
The Dominicans will enter the second round oozing confidence. They possess what is widely considered the most potent lineup in the tournament and were rumored to be adding Vladimir Guerrero. Fortunately for the remaining seven teams, that rumor proved false and they will be forced to make due with what they already have.
There is no question the Dominican Republic can score runs against anyone; the question will be their pitching. Bartolo Colon is clearly their No. 1 starter, but after that the situation gets a little bit hazy. Lefthander Odalis Perez (Dodgers), who started their game against Italy, was unimpressive, and righthander Daniel Cabrera (Orioles) was solid though unspectacular in earning the win Friday.
The Dominicans have a lot of flexibility though, because only Colon threw more than 50 pitches, so their entire staff will be available starting with their Round Two opener.
The two wild cards could be the Braves Jorge Sosa and Twins prospect Francisco Liriano. Sosa looked sharp in relief against Italy and is in top form after a season of winter ball. Liriano relieved against Australia, and although he allowed an unearned run, he was absolutely dominant with a fastball in the 94-97 mph range and strong secondary stuff.
“His changeup was impressive,” said Huber, one of his strikeout victims. “I was geared up for the fastball obviously, and he threw (the change) good. He had good arm speed and that is what probably got me. It had a bit of fade and a bit of sink, but the changeup is sold in the arm speed and he did a very nice job with that.”
The lefthander entered with one out in the fourth and fanned six in 2 2/3 innings. Dominican manager Manny Acta indicated he is not afraid of putting the 22-year-old in a big game, and possibly giving him a start.
“Yes, there is a possibility, but we’re thinking of piggybacking a couple of those guys,” Acta said. “But definitely, he’ll have a large role for us. If not (in San Juan), probably over there in San Diego. The kid has shown he has terrific stuff. I think he can go against any lineup in this tournament.”
Even without a change in their pitcher usage patterns, the Dominicans will remain favorites to advance. By virtue of beating Cuba in the Pool C finale, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are set to square off in their Round Two opener, and Acta made it very clear who he sees as his country’s biggest rival.
“Yes, to some extent of course there is some rivalry and also because the Venezuela pitching staff now these days is stronger than Puerto Rico,” Acta said. “However, with the larger population of the Dominicans living in New York and in Puerto Rico, our main rivalry will continue to be with Puerto Rico.”
Round Two, much like Pool D, should have plenty of action, and the Dominican Republic will be at the center of it.