Mexicans pull upset in Caribbean Series

By Eric Edwards

CARACAS, Venezuela–It was the usual imbalance of power. On one side of the field stood a Dominican team armed with Vladimir Guerrero and Miguel Tejada in the middle of its lineup, and Odalis Perez at the top of its starting rotation. Across the way was a Mexican squad with just one major leaguer–part-time outfielder Jacob Cruz.

It was the sword against the stone at this year’s Caribbean World Series–and the Mexicans somehow managed to strike a blow to the temple.

Guerrero and Tejada both played well in the six-game round-robin tournament, but it was a little-known catcher from the Culiacan Tomateros who elbowed them both out of the spotlight.

Adan Amezcua, a refugee from the Orioles organization, came to University Stadium in this capital city with a simple mission: to get the attention of the scores of big league scouts who would be forced to attend this competition despite the dearth of promising prospects.

By the time the tournament was over he had achieved far more than that–he had led Mexico to just its fourth title since joining the Caribbean fray 32 years ago–and just the second for a country other than the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico since Venezuela captured its last Series title in 1987.

Amezcua was already a hero in Culiacan after hitting the home run that won Game 5 of the Tomateros championship series against Mazatlan. His big-hit parade would continue its march at this bigger venue.

He delivered eight RBIs in the Tomateros first three games here–all victories–and finished the tournament with a .455 average, three home runs and nine RBIs. Virtually every hit had a run attached–most of them in key situations–as the Mexicans found a myriad of ways to win games down the stretch.

“I just came here trying to open some eyes. I still feel like I can play in the major leagues and I wanted to show I deserve another chance,” said Amezcua, who remained unsigned after the tournament ended despite his performance. “Never, did I expect to play this well. But we had something special going with this team. As soon as we rallied for the first win, we had a feeling it could unfold like this.”

In Culiacan’s opening contest against the host Venezuelans, Amezcua singled home two runs to begin his team’s return from a 5-1 deficit, then tied the game with a run-scoring, two-out single in the ninth inning.

An inning later Cruz won the game with a walk-off home run.

The next night, Amezcua hit a three-run home run that helped stake Culiacan to a 5-2 lead over the Dominican Republic. The Dominicans rallied to tie the game at 5-5, but their defense would betray them in the seventh inning, leading to two more Mexican runs and a 7-6 victory for Culiacan.

A night later, Amezcua’s two-run home run keyed a four-run fifth inning that helped Mexico pull out to an 8-1 lead over the Puerto Rican champion Bayamon Vaqueros.

Bayamon would stage a late-inning comeback once starter Pablo Ochoa was lifted from the game, pulling to within 9-7 in the final inning. They then put runners at the corners with two outs for Eduardo Perez, whose drive through the thin mountain air appeared headed into the bleachers in centerfield.

Darrell Sherman, a transplanted American who has settled in Culiacan, at first believed the ball was headed over the wall, but tracked it down just before it hit the top of the centerfield cushion 385 feet away, preserving the victory for Mexico.

A night later it was Mexico’s turn to come from off the pace, scoring six times in the final two innings to complete a 13-9 victory over Venezuela. In that game, Amezcua made his presence felt on both sides of the ball, hitting a solo home run that tied the game at seven in the seventh inning after diffusing what could have been a big inning in the second by blocking the plate before receiving the throw from centerfield and tagging Venezuelan baserunner Endy Chavez out as he tried to score from second base on a single by Cesar Isturiz.

That victory eliminated both Puerto Rico, which had lost its first three games, and Venezuela, which had lost three of its first four despite collecting 62 hits in those contests, leaving only the Dominicans with a chance of chasing down Culiacan. In order to do so, the Dominicans would have to win their second head-to-head matchup with the Tomateros then hope their regional rivals from Puerto Rico could knock them off the next day to force an extra-game tiebreaker.

The Mexicans finally ended up the on the wrong side of a one-run game against the Dominicans in their rematch, falling 4-3, but rebounded the next day behind ace Rodrigo Lopez, who pitched a four-hit shutout to beat Puerto Rico, 3-0 and clinch the title for Culiacan–the Tomateros second in six years under manager Paquin Estrada.

It didn’t matter to Estrada that his team was again left to celebrate in a stadium emptied by the early exit of the home team.

“Every year we come to this tournament the underdogs and each year we set out to prove that we belong,” said Estrada. “Every year we are determined to show that this is more than just two games between the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. This club believed in itself from the start. The hardest part of being a manager is when you are forced to motivate your team to perform. No such effort was required on my part this year. My guys were hungry from the start and I believe it was our collective heart, as much as our execution on the field, that carried the day.”

Dominican manager Bob Geren, whose Licey team had shown a similar penchant for such enterprises by upsetting the Aguilas Cibaenos in the Dominican championship series, felt likewise.

“It’s not always the team that looks best on paper that prevails in these short tournaments,” said Geren. “The Mexicans were certainly not the most talented team in this competition, but they executed when it mattered most and played fundamentally sound baseball.”