Host Puerto Rico edges pesky Panama

by Eric Edwards
March 7, 2006

SAN JUAN, P.R.–At 37 years old and facing a diminished role with the Yankees this season, Bernie Williams was just happy to be included on Puerto Rico’s roster for the World Baseball Classic.

His teammates were just as pleased to have him on Tuesday night.

Inserted into the lineup when Carlos Delgado wasn’t able to go, Williams delivered the game-winning hit in the fifth inning of Puerto Rico’s narrow, 2-1 victory over a pesky team from Panama.

The win puts Puerto Rico in position to perhaps clinch a spot in the second round Wednesday when it takes on the Netherlands at 8 p.m. The Netherlands will send righthander Rob Cordemans to the mound. Puerto Rico will respond with Seattle Mariners righthander Joel Pineiro. Panama has a do-or-die game today at 2 p.m. against Cuba.

“Bernie is a clutch hitter, he knows how to play the game,” Puerto Rico manager Jose Oquendo said. “In a tough situation he always seems to come through.”

Trailing 1-0 through four innings and having managed just one hit off of Panama starter Len Picota, Alexis Rios turned the tide of the game with a home run leading off the fifth. Alex Cintron kept the rally going with a single, reached second base on a sacrifice bunt by Alex Cora, and scored on Williams’ line single back through the box.

“I had been putting the ball where I wanted all night, but that one pitch (to Rios) turned the game around,” said the 39-year-old Picota, who pitched in China last season.

Rios’ drive pierced through the heavy air at Hiram Bithorn Stadium and just cleared the left field fence–and Carlos Lee’s glove.

“When I saw the left fielder getting closer to the wall and the ball disappeared–it was a great feeling,” said Rios.

The blast helped liberate a Puerto Rico offense that had been laboring under the high expectations of the 19,043 fans in attendance Tuesday night.

“The guys were pressing a little bit, swinging at a lot of first pitches,” Oquendo said. “Alexis helped take the load off.”

Javier Vazquez and five relievers did the rest. Vazquez clearly wasn’t at his best on Tuesday, but managed to escape from two tight spots in the first three innings before hitting the wall in the fourth.

Carlos Lee opened that inning by reaching on an infield single and Vazquez walked Sherman Obando, the last batter he would face. Oquendo turned to Triple-A righthander Federico Baez, who was so effective this winter in Puerto Rico for the Manati Athenians. Baez, however, wasn’t sharp on Tuesday, walking Ruben Rivera to load the bases and Carlos Ruiz to force in Panama’s first run. Baez flirted with disaster again, running the count full before getting Audes De Leon to fly out to right field. Baez again reached a full count to Jonny Lasson, who fouled off two pitches with the count at 3-and-2, before hitting into a rally-killing 6-4-3 double play.

Vazquez allowed three hits and a run over three innings, walking two and striking out two.

After Baez’s struggles, Puerto Rico’s bullpen–a combination of Jose “Iche” Santiago, Pedro Feliciano, Ivan Maldonado, Kiko Calero and Fernando Cabrera–retired 15 of the next 17 Panamanian batters to preserve the lead.

“I’m really proud of the way the bullpen battled,” Oquendo said. “I didn’t plan on using so many pitchers, but I wanted to make sure all the relievers had low pitch counts so they would be available to pitch again (Wednesday).”

Cabrera walked Carlos Ruiz with one out in the ninth, but Yadier Molina cut down pinch-runner Adolfo Rivera trying to steal second base, and Cabrera struck out Manuel Rodriguez to end the game.

“That was a hit-and-run, and the batter didn’t make contact,” said Panama manager Anibal Reluz. “I felt like we had to manufacture something in that situation.”

Santiago, who pitched 1 2/3 innings in relief of Baez, got the win. Manuel Acosta, who came on for Picota in the fifth, took the loss for Panama.