SAN JUAN, P.R.--Knocking out Cuba on Friday was nice, but it doesn't compare to the wire-to-wire win Puerto Rico scored over arch rival Dominican Republic on Sunday.
The last two times the Dominicans played here - at the Caribbean Series in 1999 and 2003 - they left heartbreak in their wake, stealing two titles Puerto Rico thought it had in the bag.
On Sunday, Puerto Rico got payback against its heavily favored rivals, scorching the Dominican Republic's bullpen in a 7-1 victory to kick off the second round of play for both teams.
The previously unbeaten Dominican team must now beat Cuba today or risk falling to 0-2 in the second-round, a three-game round-robin that leaves little margin for error. Cuba downed Venezuela, 7-2 in Sunday' early game.
"You hate to lose the first one," Dominican manager Manny Acta said. "It doesn't leave you any room for mistakes. We have to beat Cuba, and then we can turn our attention to Venezuela."
Puerto Rico, meanwhile, is sitting pretty. The island team faces Venezuela tonight at 9 p.m. and gets a day off before its rematch with Cuba on Wednesday night. A win in either of those games will likely be enough for them to move on to the semifinals at Petco Park in San Diego.
Jose Cruz Jr., and Javier Vazquez took center stage on Sunday night in front of a sold out crowd of 19,692 at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.
Cruz drove in three runs on two singles up the middle - the first, in the sixth inning, plated Carlos Beltran and Javy Lopez and broke up a 1-1 tie. The second, with Cruz batting from the left side this time, scored Beltran for a 5-1 Puerto Rico lead and put the Puerto Rican faithful in taunting mode.
"This is as exciting for me as anything I've ever been a part of," said Cruz, whose father is the team's third base coach. "To do it on this stage is very exciting. I had the good fortune that the two ground balls I hit just missed [Alfonso] Soriano's glove a couple of times."
Cruz's first hit helped give Vazquez, ace of a surprisingly effect Puerto Rican pitching staff, a well-deserved victory. The White Sox righthander allowed just three hits and a run over five innings, logging 71 pitches in his second start of the tournament. Vazquez walked just one batter and struck out five, stifling this competition's most explosive lineup.
The only run he allowed was the first of the game, a solo home run by Adrian Beltre with one out in the second inning, with Vazquez growing sharper as the night wore on.
"He kept the ball down," Puerto Rico manager Jose "Oquendo said. "He made the one mistake, but after that he had them off balance, working the ball inside and out."
Puerto Rico tied the game against Dominican starter Bartolo Colon in the fourth inning on consecutive doubles by Beltran and Lopez. The team's third and fourth hitters performed more as table setters in Sunday's game. Beltran had one hit and scored three times, and Lopez -- who had two doubles and a single -- scored twice.
The decisive rally began when Dominican manager Acta brought lefthander Damaso Marte in to replace Colon to start the sixth inning. Usually vulnerable to lefties, Puerto Rico jumped all over Marte.
Beltran drew a walk leading off the inning and Lopez lofted a double down the right field line just in front of Juan Encarnacion. Cruz then fought off a slider and punched it back up the middle for a 3-1 Puerto Rico advantage, advancing to second on center fielder Willy Taveras' throwing error.
Cruz took third on an infield hit by Tony Valentin and scored on a suicide squeeze by Alex Cintron.
In the seventh, Beltran and Lopez again ignited Puerto Rico's offense. Beltran reached on a sharply stuck ground ball that was ruled an error on Dominican second baseman Soriano, Lopez followed with a bloop single to right field before Cruz again found the hole up the middle to score Beltran. Ricky Ledee moved the runners over on a ground out to first base and Jose Valentin scored them, dropping a soft liner in front of Taveras.
The Dominicans threatened to score against Puerto Rico reliever Jose Santiago with two outs in the seventh, putting runners on second and third, but Kiko Calero escaped that jam and pitched a scoreless eighth. J.C. Romero came on to get the final three outs.
Marte, who retired only one batter while allowing three hit and three runs, took the loss for the Dominicans who will get their first look at the Cubans in today's early game.
"We're anxious to face the Cubans," Acta said. "We've never seen them before in this type of competition, at least when we've had this caliber of players."