Puerto Rico Closes In On Second Round Spot

SAN JUAN, P.R.–Thanks to its thin bullpen, Puerto Rico got a brief
scare on Wednesday night before pulling away from the Netherlands for
an 8-3 victory in front of 15,570 fans on day two of pool play in the
World Baseball Classic at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran belted solo home runs, Luis Matos had a
key double in the two-run sixth inning for a Puerto Rican team that
finally found its stride offensively after struggling against Panama in
its opening game victory.

The victory virtually assures
Puerto Rico (2-0) of a spot in the second round of the 16-nation
tournament, which will also be held at Bithorn Stadium. It also allows
local promoter Antonio Munoz–the same man who brought the Expos to San
Juan for 22 games in 2003 and 2004–to ponder the financial windfall
that awaits.

The Puerto Rico bullpen, so effective on
Tuesday, was shaky in the middle innings against the Netherlands
Wednesday night, letting a 3-1 lead slip away.

Puerto Rico
manager Jose Oquendo turned to his second-tier arms after starter Joel
Pineiro worked four impressive innings–allowing just an unearned run
in the fourth inning–and quickly paid a price.

Willie Collazo (Angels), the pitcher of the year in the Puerto Rican
League this winter, yielded a leadoff double to Reily Legito. After
retiring the next two batters, Ivanon Coffie laced a single to center
field, scoring Legito. Collazo then walked Andruw Jones, and Alex Cora,
who would atone for his mistake with two key plays later, threw high to
Collazo covering first base on a ground ball by Randall Simon, allowing
Coffie to score from second to tie the game.

Puerto Rico,
however, took the lead back in its next at bat. Alex Cintron, traded
earlier in the day from the Diamondbacks to the White Sox, singled off
of the second-base bag leading off the inning, and took third on a
ground-rule double to center field by his winter league teammate with
Caguas, Matos.

Jose Valentin lofted a fly ball to right
field that was just deep enough to score Cintron, and Cora followed
with a perfectly executed suicide squeeze to stretch the Puerto Rico
lead to two runs.

Cora helped defuse a Netherlands rally in
the sixth inning, turning a nifty double play when he faked a relay
throw after forcing the runner at second, then wheeled to third base
and caught Dirk van Klooster too far off the bag.

Rico added two more runs in the seventh on back-to-back home runs by
Rodriguez and Beltran and tacked on another run in the ninth when
pinch-hitter Ricky Ledee doubled and scored on a Matos’ second double
of the game.

While the Puerto Rico offense was awakening,
lefthanders Pedro Feliciano and J.C. Romero stabilized the bullpen in
the seventh and eighth innings, and righthander Chris Rojas closed out
the victory, working a scoreless ninth.

Mets farmhand
Orlando Roman, who walked two over 2/3 of an inning, got the win for
Puerto Rico. Tigers prospect Jair Jurrjens took the loss for the Dutch,
giving up three hits and three runs in one inning.

Delgado was missing from Puerto Rico’s lineup again, still nursing
tendonitis in his left elbow. Oquendo said Delgado felt a little better
on Wednesday, but was still day-to-day. Oquendo is hesitant to put
Delgado in the lineup until he has at least one session in the batting
cage. That could come during a noon workout Thursday, if Delgado feels
up to it. Delgado battled through a similar injury last spring when he
was with the Marlins.

Puerto Rico has the day off today
before facing Cuba on Friday night in an 8:30 p.m. game. That contest
was sold out four days after tickets went on sale, but wouldn’t mean
much–in the standings, anyway–should Cuba beat the Netherlands on
Thursday in the only scheduled game in the pool. A Cuban victory would
ensure that Puerto Rico and Cuba move on to the second round. They
would face the top two teams from Pool D, a four-team group that
includes the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Italy and Australia.