SAN JUAN, P.R.--This one had been hard to handicap all along.
Venezuela had the edge in pitching, the Dominican Republic the advantage at the plate. The Venezuelans were overpowered in a first-round meeting between the two teams 11-5, but had since recorded three shutout victories and were looking for revenge.
The difference, as you might expect when two teams are so closely matched--and so much is one the line--was decided by inches.
Five Dominican pitchers combined on a one-hitter Tuesday night in this do-or-die match-up in front of 13,007 fans at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, but it was a seventh-inning, bases-loaded passed ball on Venezuelan catcher Ramon Hernandez that decided the outcome in the Dominican Republic's favor, 2-1.
This one will live in the lure of both countries' rich baseball traditions for a long time to come.
A 2-0 pitch from Venezuelan reliever Kelvim Escobar to Albert Pujols with the bases loaded in the home half of the seventh inning was just off the outside edge of the plate. Hernandez's glove, however, was not.
The ball caromed off its outside edge to the backstop, allowing Alberto Castillo to score the decisive run in a victory that qualifies the Dominican Republic as the first team to move on to the inaugural World Baseball Classic's semifinals at Petco Park in San Diego on Saturday.
Venezuela, which finished the first two rounds of the competition with a 3-3 record, is eliminated.
"Disappointed, yes," Venezuelan manager Luis Sojo answered when asked his emotions in the wake of such a tough loss. "But I'm not disappointed with the guys. The only reason they came was to represent their country, and a lot of them did so in the face of pressure from their owners and general managers."
And they did make a tough Dominican team sweat, especially in the final inning. Courtesy of two walks and a fielding error by shortstop Miguel Tejada, closer Duaner Sanchez faced a bases-loaded jam in the ninth-inning, falling behind in the count 2-1 before getting Edgardo Alfonzo to fly out to right field, igniting the kind of celebration Dominicans specialize in.
"That was a great baseball game," Dominican manager Manny Acta said. "What a team we just beat. Their pitching is amazing, they have a great lineup and real good defense. It took everything we had."
The Dominican Republic will open the semifinal round on Saturday against the winner of Wednesday's 8 p.m. game between Cuba and Puerto Rico, another winner-take-all contest.
"It would be great to bring the first-ever title back to Latin America," said Acta. "At this stage, with the games we have under our belt, everyone is in shape. You'll see an even higher level of play in San Diego."
The Dominican Republic got to Freddy Garcia on Tuesday night when you have to get to the White Sox righthander--in the early going.
Not allowing the husky all-star to settle in, Placido Polanco led off the game with a single and took third on Tejada's double. Looking for the big inning, the Dominican instead nearly came up empty when Albert Pujols grounded out to third base and Adrian Beltre lined out to right field.
Moises Alou salvaged the inning, however, scoring Polanco on an infield hit. After that, Garcia wasn't budging.
He allowed just one hit over the next three innings and retired 10 of the last 12 batters he faced, leaving after the fourth having thrown 70 pitches.
Escobar came on to spell him and was every bit as effective until the seventh, when the Dominicans loaded the bases on a one-out single by Castillo, a two-out single by Polanco and a four-pitch walk to Tejada that loaded the bases and the stage for Hernandez's mistake.
"I don't know what happened. It was a good pitch right down the middle," Sojo said. "(Hernandez) didn't catch it. Defensively he's good, he just missed it.
"They had good hitters. We had good hitters. Nobody hit the ball today. To lose the way we did is very disappointing."
Having to face Dominican righthander Daniel Cabrera didn't help the Venezuelan cause. The Orioles' 25-year-old righthander didn't allow a hit and struck out seven before giving way to 21-year-old lefthander Francisco Liriano to start the fifth inning. Both Dominican pitchers were consistently throwing fastballs in the mid-90s.
"I know I'm not as well-known as some of the other guys in this tournament, but I've had my eye on this competition since I was included on the initial roster in December," Cabrera said. "I stayed in shape by pitching in the Caribbean Series and I showed up early at spring training and worked hard with (new Orioles) pitching coach Leo Mazzone. This was as important a game as I have pitched in my life."
Liriano, the Twins' top prospect kept the no-hitter going until the sixth inning. Omar Vizquel ended it, grounding a double down the left-field line to put runners at second-and-third with one out, and Bobby Abreu grounded out to second base to drive in Juan Rivera, who had opened the inning by working a walk.
With its 1-for-29 performance on Tuesday, Venezuela's offense finished the Classic with an anemic .186 team batting average. It was a recipe for disappointment for a country still basking in the glow of a Caribbean Series victory last month.
Sojo said he tried everything he could think of to get his team going offensively, but nothing worked. On Tuesday he replaced Magglio Ordonez in the lineup with Carlos Guillen, the Tigers shortstop who played first base.
"You can't put a gun to their heads and say 'get a hit,'" Sojo said. "They tried."
Miguel Batista, who retired the only batter he faced to end the seventh inning, got the win for the Dominicans. Escobar took the loss.
And the Dominican Republic punched its ticket for San Diego.