SAN DIEGO--Venezuela entered the 2017 World Baseball Classic with a legitimate hope of winning the tournament and bringing joy to a country that so desperately needed it.
The Venezuelans boasted a fearsome lineup with depth and quality that could only be matched by the Dominican Republic. Felix Hernandez came back after skipping the 2013 WBC to be the ace of a rotation of accomplished big league veterans. The bullpen had the desired mix of experienced arms and well-regarded prospects most teams strive for.
All the pieces were in place for Venezuela, and it was not unreasonable to consider it a favorite to win the WBC crown.
Instead, Venezuela was done after the second round, going 2-5 in the tournament and getting blown out multiple times, culminating in a humiliating 13-2 loss to Puerto Rico's backups in the final game of second-round play.
How did it all go so wrong? How did a team with so much talent and motivation to win perform as poorly as it did?
"I don't know what happened," third baseman Yangervis Solarte said. "We have to figure it out the next Classic. We have to figure out everything."
Injuries played a part in Venezuela's subpar performance. Catcher Salvador Perez (knee) was lost in the first round after a collision at home plate, while Martin Prado (hamstring) and Miguel Cabrera (back) both came up lame after at-bats in the second round and were never seen again.
But a more significant cause was run prevention. Venezuela allowed 55 runs in seven games. The defense committed eight errors which led to six unearned runs, including five errors in the second round.
The performance led to criticism of manager Omar Vizquel's decisions on defensive alignment and bullpen usage.
Rather than use Solarte or Prado, the team's two natural third basemen, Vizquel elected to use Rougned Odor and Jose Altuve at third base despite neither having played the position in the major leagues. Odor, who also never played third in the minors, committed two critical errors in a 4-2 loss to the United States to open second-round play. Altuve, who hadn't played third since he was in Double-A in 2011, made an error in the finale against Puerto Rico and seemed to misread balls off the bat in his two second-round games, allowing what should have been routine ground balls to become singles.
Meanwhile, Prado and Solarte were left to languish in left field, a position neither had played in years.
"There’s nothing we can do about it," Vizquel said. "We are trying to put the players there that got the opportunity to get some runs for us. I understand that Solarte also has the opportunity, but it's the same case with Hernan Perez . . . So it’s hard for one guy to get in the lineup sometimes. I can’t really bench Altuve and Odor."
Vizquel's explanation left many scratching their heads because Solarte has a higher batting average, on-base percentage and OPS than Odor both in his career and last season, in addition to being an experienced third baseman.
Further, Vizquel's inclusion of Solarte in the same tier as Perez--a career backup with a .255/.279/.373 slash line--further contributed to the perception that Vizquel did not properly evaluate his own players.
That perception grew with Vizquel's bullpen usage. In a must-win game against the Dominican Republic in the second round, Vizquel went to minor leaguers Jose Castillo and Arcenio Leon pitching on back-to-back days before going to big leaguers Jose Alvarez and Francisco Rodriguez, decisions that backfired when both Castillo and Leon allowed runs to put Venezuela in a bigger hole than they started with.
Vizquel wasn't given many options by a bullpen unit that vastly underperformed, but his decision on who to use in a crucial second-round moment made things even more difficult for Venezuela.
The irritation at how everything played out was plain for all to see by the time the team was done. One-by-one, Venezuela's players walked out of the Petco Park locker room after their final game against Puerto Rico stone-faced and refusing to talk to the media, waving off requests from both English and Spanish-language outlets.
For the few that did speak, only the questions about returning to their major league teams were answered with any joviality.
"We didn't play the way we expected to be playing," Rodriguez told assembled reporters. "We've just got to move on now, turn the page, find a way to learn what we did wrong to fix it in the future."
Despite being one of the most baseball-rich countries in terms of talent, Venezuela has gotten past the second round only once in four WBCs. Its all-time record in the event is 12-12, and its last two showings have been its worst.
Now, Venezuela must wait four more years to prove it can join the ranks of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and other similarly talented squads atop the WBC.
"We haven’t gone to the next level and I don’t know what the solution is," Vizquel said. "We thought we were going to get to the finals.
"Obviously, that didn’t happen. Other teams came very prepared. They executed their plan to perfection, and they pitched much better than us and batted better than us. Simple as that."