P.R. closes in on spot in second round

by Eric Edwards
March 8, 2006

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.

Ivan 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.

Lefthander 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.

Puerto 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.

Carlos 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.