SAN JUAN, P.R.--Albert Pujols plays for one of the best teams in the major leagues, but didn't mince words when asked to assess this Dominican team at the World Baseball Classic.
"This is the best team I've been a part of and I've been on a number of very good clubs," said Pujols before the D.R. qualified for the semifinals with a 2-1 victory against Venezuela. "It's truly an honor to be playing alongside guys like David Ortiz, Miguel Tejada and Alfonso Soriano."
The Cardinals star said he is already looking forward to representing the Dominican Republic at the next tournament in 2009.
"They can write my name down. This has been a phenomenal experience. As long as I'm healthy I'll be ready to represent the Dominican Republic," said Pujols.
Dominican manager Manny Acta has also enjoyed the experience, but would like to see the spring exhibition season moved up so the players would have a more game experience before the tournament begins.
"It would have been better if we had started playing spring exhibition games about a week earlier. It's a better competition if these guys have five games under their belt," said the Mets third-base coach, who served in the same capacity for the Expos when they played here in 2003 and 2004. "Guys are getting into shape now, but it would be good to start the tournament at the point we're at now. Pitchers could pitch a little deeper into games, hitters would sharper, everyone would be closer to their best."
Gourriel A Go
Cuba's Yuliesky Gourriel, the team's number-three hitter and the best young prospect at this tournament, practiced with the team on Tuesday and will be in the Cuban lineup against Puerto Rico.
Gourriel was hit in his right index finger by a pitch from Dominican reliever Duaner Sanchez in the eighth inning of his team's 7-3 loss on Monday and removed from the game. X-rays taken back at the tam's hotel came back negative.
MLB Plotting Return to San Juan?
Bob DuPuy, President and Chief Operating Officer of Major League Baseball, attending Tuesday's game between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, said that he discussed with officials from MB Sports the prospect of bringing more games to San Juan, either this season, or beyond.
"It's a possibility. We talked with (MB Sports president) Enrique (Cruz) and (MB Sports CEO) Antonio Munoz. We'll be back to talk in our office and then talk about a possible series. If we can't get it done for 2006, we will look at it for 2007, 2008, 2009," said DuPuy.
Munoz brought the Montreal Expos here for 22 games in 2003 and 2004 and also staged the 2001 opening season game between Texas and Toronto at Bithorn Stadium. He is promoting the first two stages of the World Baseball Classic at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.
Munoz had tried to bring more games to San Juan last season, but a number of teams, including the Marlins and Devil Rays, balked at the idea after Expos attendance had fallen off so dramatically in their second season here.
DuPuy said he doesn't have any particular regarded which teams could be involved, and baseball officials were hesitant to return to the San Juan market, preferring to give it another test run with the World Baseball Classic.
"Anything between three and 10 games total in San Juan, assuming other clubs are interested in doing what we had with the Expos in 2003 and 2004," said DuPuy. "We have not talked to clubs about doing that. We have to talk to clubs first. It's their call, not ours. They are the ones giving up home games."
Average attendance for the 12 games here has helped revitalize interest in the market. The final average figures to settle at 15,000, Munoz's target coming into the competition.
CLASSIC CUTS FROM ANAHEIM
• Four Japanese players have now hit safely in all five WBC games: Akinori Iwamura, Muneori Kawasaki, Ichiro Suzuki and Hitoshi Tamura.
• Japan's starting pitching has been dominant in the WBC. Japanese starters entered the game with a 1.53 ERA through four contests, and after Matsuzaka's command performance, Japanese starters now sport a nifty 1.19 ERA.
• Having faced both teams, Mexican manager Paquin Estrada was asked to pick a winner in Wednesday's Japan vs. Korea game. "Japan is superior . . . in my opinion," Estrada said. Korea won the first matchup 3-2 in the Tokyo Dome on March 5.
• Japan can help oust the U.S. from the WBC with a victory over Korea, but manager Sadaharu Oh refused to take the bait after the game when asked about sweet revenge against the U.S., given Japan's controversial loss to the team. "Tomorrow if we can win, we'll be happy with that," Oh said. "What happened, happened already. It's done, it's over. It's in the past."