MARACAY, Venezuela--Dominican Republic pitching coach Mark Brewer couldn't have been more right in his prediction prior to Tuesday night's Caribbean Series finale.
"This game is going to come down to relief pitching or defense," Brewer said.
And so it was, with Venezuela coming from behind in the ninth to topple the mighty Dominican Republic 5-4 to claim their first series title since 1989.
Alex Gonzalez knotted things up at 4-4 in the ninth by driving in William Bergolla, who pinch ran for Ramon Hernandez. Then Henry Blanco, who drove in the go-ahead run against Puerto Rico the night before, popped a fly ball to shallow left that hit shortstop Erick Aybar on the head, then rolled away along with Dominican Republic’s championship hopes.
Gonzalez raced from first with the winning run to give Venezuela its first Series crown in 17 years and Caracas' first since 1982. The seats at Estadio Jose Perez Colmenares couldn't contain the fans, who mobbed their Caracas Lions in a celebration as only can be seen in winter ball.
Despite the unearned run, even if officially Blanco was credited with a double, Venezuela deserved every bit of this Caribbean Series championship.
To appreciate Caracas' accomplishment, consider that manager Carlos Subero took over the helm on December 9 after a devastating loss the night before that left Caracas 21-22 on the season and out of playoff contention. When Subero lost his debut 9-4 to Aragua, the Lions had no place to go but up.
Caracas finished 14-5 to qualify for the round robin, where they faced further obstacles.
The Lions went 6-6 in the tournament, and had to win four straight to squeeze into the final against Miguel Cabrera's Aragua Tigers, who were vying for their third consecutive league crown. After losing the opener, the underdogs looked dominant, winning the next four.
Then came the Caribbean Series.
Venezuela rocked Mexico 17-1 in the opener, handled Puerto Rico 6-1, and came from behind to smash Dominican Republic 11-9 in Game 3.
In the next three games, Venezuela scooted by a pesky Mexico team 4-3 in extra innings and overcame a tough Puerto Rico club 5-1 before bringing the down the house with Wednesday's 5-4 come-from-behind thriller to clinch the Caribbean Series for this baseball-crazy nation.
Series MVP Ramon Hernandez summed up the feeling of every player on Venezuela's roster--being driven to win it all for national pride.
"I've never won a Caribbean Series and I've played in six," Hernandez said. "Everyone wants to be champion once for his country."
Both teams went at it full throttle, beginning with the starting pitchers. Veteran Geremi Gonzalez threw eight innings, giving up four runs on seven hits for Caracas. Juan Cruz didn't throw as long but gave his team a slight edge, allowing two runs on four hits in 5 2/3 innings. The Lion's tying run came off righthander Jose Valverde.
The Dominicans scored in the first thanks to some small ball and an error by the home team. Anderson Hernandez slapped a base hit past shortstop Alex Gonzalez and moved to second on a bunt by Aybar. Miguel Tejada got a ball inside and muscled it over to second where Marco Scutaro botched it, allowing Hernandez to score.
Jose Offerman's sacrifice fly in the fourth brought in Rafael Belliard to make it 3-0.
Hernandez followed in the Venezuelan fourth by whacking a Cruz pitch over the left field wall to put Venezuela on the board.
Although the ninth made the difference, the sixth proved a key inning.
With two outs and men at the corners, outfielder Franklin Gutierrez greeted Valverde line drive to right that got past a diving Timoniel Perez. Scutaro and Hernandez scored and Gutierrez ended up on third with a bases-clearing triple to tie the game at 3-3.
"It came down to the pitching in the sixth, which couldn't contain the Venezuelan offense," Dominican manager Rafael Landestoy said. "Perez was just being aggressive [with his dive]."
Sandy Martinez gave the Dominicans the lead again with a solo shot off Gonzalez in the seventh that set up the dramatic ending to the series.
Perez's dive turned out to be a grave miscalculation, considering the circumstances. But the Dominicans were still up 4-3 going into the ninth where their relief pitching and defense failed them. After Sosa allowed Venezuela two legitimate hits in the ninth, Aybar's mishap sealed the victory for the home team.
In all, Venezuela outscored their opponents 45-15, hit nine home runs in the series, compiled a team batting average of .327 and their pitching staff finished with a 2.62 ERA.
Puerto Rico overcomes Mexico to claim third place
With the Puerto Rican league in shambles, you'd expect the same of the island's team. But Puerto Rico played tough this series, showing that this country still counts when it comes to baseball.
In Wednesday's finale, Mexico hoped to salvage at least one victory while Puerto Rico hoped to avoid sharing last place with the Mexicans. The game came down to a battle of the centerfielders.
Mexico's hero was Trinidad Hubbard, who scored on an Oscar Robles sacrifice fly to knot things up at 1-1 in the third. Hubbard also scored the only other Mexico run with a home run in the sixth.
Puerto Rico's star was centerfielder Jose Valentin. Like Hubbard, the center fielder scored every one of his team's runs. It started in the first when he scored the game's first run on an Alex Cintron single to right.
The Hubbard-Valentin match up continued when Hubbard and Valentin both smacked fly balls over the center field wall in the sixth, making it 2-2.
The game went into extra innings where Valentin showed his determination to end the series on a good note for Puerto Rico. He singled and scored in the bottom of the eleventh when Edwards Guzman drilled a pitch over Hubbard's head for a long single.Mexico's Mazatlan Deer came in as defending champions and left with an 0-6 record in the series.