Venezuela ends Puerto Rico’s unbeaten run

by Eric Edwards
March 14, 2006

SAN JUAN, P.R.–Home field had been good to Puerto Rico.

But Hiram Bithorn Stadium has been home to Venezuela’s Endy Chavez, too, and the former Montreal Expos leadoff man rode its familiar jet stream Monday night to get Venezuela back into race at the World Baseball Classic.

Chavez’s two-run home run off Joel Pineiro in the fifth inning sailed on a brisk breeze over the right-field fence, breaking up a scoreless tie and proving the difference in Venezuela’s 6-0 shutout of the host team in front of 19,400 fans at Bithorn Stadium.

“You never know in this game. (Endy’s) not supposed to hit home runs, but he’s got two so far,” Venezuelan manager Luis Sojo said. “He didn’t even know I had moved him up into the leadoff spot until just before game time. Obviously the move paid off.”

Ahead in the count 3-1, Chavez was just looking for a pitch to drive.

“I knew he would probably come back with the fastball, but I wasn’t looking for the home run, just a pitch I could turn on,” said Chavez, who was with the Expos when they played 22 games in San Juan in 2003 and 2004.

Victor Martinez added a game-clinching grand slam off of Puerto Rico reliever Ivan Maldonado (Mets) in the eighth inning as Venezuela’s offense finally showed signs of life against a pitching staff that had brought a team ERA of 1.06 into the game.

The loss ended Puerto Rico’s four-game win streak on its home turf and turned this bracket of the World Baseball Classic into a do-or-die battlefield over the next two days.

Venezuela (1-1) faces the Dominican Republic (1-1) on Tuesday. The winner moves on to the semifinals at Petco Park in San Diego; the loser heads home. The same holds true for Cuba’s (1-1) rematch with Puerto Rico (1-1) on Wednesday.

Dominican manager Manny Acta said he will start Daniel Cabrera and follow him with Francisco Liriano. Venezuelan manager Luis Sojo will send Freddy Garcia to the mound. Sojo joked that he was counting on Garcia to get “just eight or nine innings out of his 80 pitches.”

Puerto Rico will start Dicky Gonzalez again against the Cubans. Cuban manager Higinio Velez will likely unveil his starting pitcher 20 minutes before game time of Wednesday night, as per his custom.

A day after Venezuela’s bullpen came unhinged in a 7-1 loss to Cuba, Venezuelan starter Carlos Zambrano had to sweat out a trio of scares after logging four shutout innings.

Zambrano labored a bit in the first inning but later was untouchable, allowing just two hits and striking out five. But it looked as if Puerto Rico would feast off his relief, when it quickly put runners on the corners against Carlos Silva on singles by Jose Valentin and Alex Cintron with no one out in the fifth.

The rally unraveled, however, when Alex Cora tried to bunt for a base hit. The ball died in front of home plate and Venezuelan catcher Ramon Hernandez forced out Cintron at second base. Shortstop Omar Vizquel then turned and fired to third base, catching Valentin too far off the bag for a double play. Television replays showed that Valentin got his hand in before the tag was applied.

“That was something that Alex did on his own,” Puerto Rico manager Jose Oquendo said. “Alex Cintron did the same thing the night before and it worked. This time it backfired. That’s baseball.”

Puerto Rico threatened again in the sixth inning against Silva, again putting runners on the corners, this time with two outs, but pinch-hitter Ricky Ledee flied out to left field to end the threat.

Puerto Rico once again put runners on the corners in the seventh, when Cora drew a two-out walk and pinch-hitter Eduardo Perez singled to right field. But Gustavo Chacin came on for Rafael Betancourt, getting Ivan Rodriguez to pop out to Vizquel, frustrating the Puerto Ricans yet again.

“Our pitchers have been doing the job all series and they did it again against a tough Puerto Rico team,” said Sojo.

By the time Martinez took Maldonado deep it was clear that Oquendo was more concerned with keeping his bullpen fresh for Wednesday’s game than remaining in the fight Monday.

Angels farmhand Willie Collazo, the Puerto Rican League’s pitcher of the year this winter, walked the first two batters he faced in the eighth. On came Maldonado, a late addition to the staff who was 5-6, 5.25 last year between Class A Port St. Lucie and Double-A Binghamton.

Maldonado hit Miguel Cabrera with a pitch before serving up a fatty to Martinez.

“There were one or two guys I wanted to keep in reserve for Wednesday, and this is a 14-man staff,” Oquendo said. “All these guys can pitch and I plan to use them.”

Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez came on to register the final three outs for Venezuela, which has shutout the opposition in all three of its victories.