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February 5, 2007

Caribbean Series

Day Three

by Derek Jacques

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You can find my Day One recap here.

It was a strange feeling being in Puerto Rico, watching baseball on Super Bowl Sunday. It felt like being a rebel leader in exile, biding my time, keeping the faith, and trying to secure foreign support while waiting for the current despots-the NFL-to slip up, so that the people can be liberated from football once and for all.

Until the glorious day the anti-football revolution comes, people in America will be unfamiliar with the workings of the Caribbean Series, and it will be incumbent upon us to educate them. Saturday's Day Two action left us with two undefeated teams, and two winless ones. The Dominicans pounded Mexico, 9-0, with Tony Batista again proving the offensive catalyst, adding two more homers to the one he hit in the opening game. In the nightcap, the home team beat the Venezuelans in a much closer match, 6-3. So on Sunday, the two winless teams played each other in the afternoon, leaving the two undefeateds to joust in the evening. In other words, after the day's action we would finally have a clear, unbeaten front-runner, as well as one 0-3 team that will be virtually out of contention for the crown.

These were the lineups for Game One:

Mexico                      Venezuela

Alfredo Amezaga, 2B         Gregor Blanco, CF
Jon Weber, LF               Luis Rodriguez, 2B
Erubiel Durazo, DH          Ramon Hernandez, 1B
Luis A. Garcia, RF          Randall Simon, DH
Juan Canizalez, 1B          Jose Castillo, RF
Karim Garcia, CF            Steve Torrealba, C
Herber Gomez, 3B            Luis Maza, 3B
Geronimo Gil, C             Ronny Cedeno, SS
Jose Luis Sandoval, SS      Oscar Salazar, LF

Justin Lehr, P              Tim McClaskey, P

A few notes about some of the more obscure names above, before hitting the bullet points. This time out, we'll focus on the foreign players on each of these teams. Justin Lehr's a journeyman, most recently with the Brewers. His career major league ERA is 5.31 in 81 innings over three seasons. In eight years in the minors, he's got a 4.15 ERA. Venezuela's starter, Tim McClaskey, is what you'd describe as a minor league lifer. He turned 31 last month, and he has a career 3.88 ERA in 1,177 minor league innings with the Florida, Seattle, Oakland, Houston, and Philadelphia organizations, plus a brief sojourn with the Ozark Ducks of the independent Central League back in 2003.

Jon Weber, a Texas Tech grad, is closing in on lifer status-after washing out of the Reds organization, he hit the tar out of the ball in the Frontier and Northern Leagues, before getting picked up by Oakland in 2003. Since then, he's been in the minors with the Dodgers and Diamondbacks. He turned 29 in January. All sorts of motivations drive people to this tournament-some play in winter leagues to sharpen their skills for the coming season, others to get some at bats after time lost to injury, or to show their national pride. For a number of the participants, this is a paycheck made playing baseball, rather than, say, working at Sears. For all of them, however, the Caribbean Series is a chance to show themselves off for scouts and other decision makers. These are the only games being played right now-these players have baseball's undivided attention.

  • In the bottom of the first inning, with first and third and a run already in due to an error by Lehr, we received a sure sign of the apocalypse. Ramon Hernandez, the runner on first base, was tricked by the fake-to-third, go-to-first pickoff move, and tagged out. This may be the first known time, at any level, that move has ever worked.
  • Still in the same inning, with Venezuela leading 3-0, Lehr tried to make lightning strike again. This time, Steve Torrealba was caught napping off first base, but the throw was wild past Juan Canizalez. The miscue scored a run for Venezuela. After an RBI double by Luis Maza, the manager Lorenzo Bundy had finally seen Lehr throw enough batting practice.
  • By the third inning, it was unbelievably quiet for a Caribbean Series game. Winter League games in Hispanic America are an aural assault-you have dance music, marching bands patrolling the stadium, and people often bring whistles and air horns. Folks who think that the volume is set too high at major league stadia might want to invest in a decent pair of earplugs before catching some winter league action. When it came time for the Mexico-Venezuela game, though, it was so quiet that people were taping video reports in the press box.
  • In the bottom of the third inning there was a great play by Alfredo Amezaga at second diving to stop a grounder headed to center, and making a flip to shortstop Jose Luis Sandoval from flat on his belly. This highlights one of the stranger position changes I've seen. Amezaga was the defensive goat of game one, in center field. In the press conference after game one, Bundy said it was just a bad game, pointed to his success in center at the major league level, said he wasn't going to pull Amezaga out of center field. He has since started the last two games at second base. I wonder what happened in between Friday night (really, Friday early morning) and Friday afternoon?
  • Mexico finally scores in the fourth, breaking a streak of 16 scoreless innings. The Mexicans looked to do more damage with a couple of men on and one out, but Karim Garcia ended the threat with a double play grounder, then he got tossed from the game by first base ump Domingo Polanco. The replay seemed to show he was safe at first; it's hard to imagine what he could have said in what looked like a pretty short and tame argument to merit getting thrown out. On the other hand, we know that Garcia has a temper. More bad news for Mexico-apparently, in Caribbean Series play, an ejection will cost a player not just that game, but the next one, too.

  • With the score 8-0, things started breaking into blowout mode in the press box. Next to me, I had a Dominican radio stringer and a Puerto Rican newspaperman hitting on a supercute Mexican TV girl, from Telemax, whatever that is. Again, contrary to the "no cheering in the press room" ethos, she's got her face painted in Mexico's colors, red, white, and green.
  • Mexico's third pitcher, Mauricio Tequida, is an extreme ground ball type from the Mexican League, with a low strikeout rate reminiscent of Chien Ming Wang. He was once property of the Dodgers, but was "loaned" out to the Mexican League two years ago. To my knowledge, the Mexican League has made no effort to give the Dodgers their player back. I'm not sure where this puts his prospect status. Is this like when you "loan" a friend a CD you don't like, hoping that you'll never see it again?
  • With McClaskey pitching, in the sixth, the Venezuelan defense broke down a bit, giving Mexico its best scoring opportunity of the night-second and third, no outs. An RBI single later, McClaskey was chased from the game, in favor of 26-year-old Oakland farmhand Victor Moreno.
  • During the Mexican rally, Juan Francisco Puello, the Commissioner of the Caribbean Confederation of Professional Baseball, started a press conference in the Box. He started off by talking about the fact that the Series will be in Nicaragua soon and they expect to be in Colombia eventually. This, of course, is distinct from Nicaragua and Colombia actually sending teams to the Caribbean Series. Raise the idea of expanding the tournament to a press corps already psychologically scarred by an 18 inning game only a few days ago, and panic ensues. It's a very interesting discussion, but kind of weird for the Commissioner to be holding a presser during a game.
  • While the Commissioner did his thing, the Mexicans loaded the bases with one out and actually had the tying run in the on-deck circle. But Moreno rose to the challenge, whiffing Geronimo Gil on a nasty changeup. Then, Jose Castillo, an infielder playing right, tracked down a slicing drive down the line. And that was pretty much all she wrote for Mexico. In the bottom of the inning, Venezuela scored five runs, keyed by an Oscar Salazar bases-loaded triple past Herber Gomez down the third base line. Through three games, Mexico has been outscored 33-4. So I guess the question is, what's the problem with Mexico? Are they suffering a Colorado Rockies-style sea level breakdown? Is the league simply inferior to the competition? Is it just bad luck and a small sample size?

Quietly, slowly, over the course of the Mexico-Venezuela tilt, Roberto Clemente Stadium filled with people waving Dominican and Puerto Rican flags. The place was officially sold out, packed to its capacity of 13,000, with just about all of them waiting for Puerto Rico to take on its closest neighbor, the Dominican Republic.

These were the lineups for game two:

Puerto Rico                   Dominican Republic

Alex Cora, 3B                 Anderson Hernandez, 2B
Luis R. Figueroa, SS          Luis Polonia, DH
Hiram Bocachica, LF           Miguel Tejada, SS
Juan Gonzalez, DH             Tony Batista, 3B
Javier Valentin, 1B           Nelson Cruz, RF
Armando Rios, RF              Jose Fernandez, 1B
Yadier Molina, C              Alex Fernandez, CF
Ruben Gotay, 2B               Alberto Castillo, C
Luis Matos, CF                Bernie Castro, LF

Jonathan Albaladejo, P        Fabio Castro, P

There are two Luis Figueroas on Team Puerto Rico. Luis R., our starter at shortstop, who the Puerto Ricans call "Wycho," is a 32-year-old veteran who's picked up cups of coffee with the Pirates and Blue Jays. Luis D.-the one without the cool Puerto Rican nickname-is 29, a longtime minor leaguer with the Mariners and Pirates, whose career hit the ceiling at AAA. Before you ask, no, the Pirates did not have both Figueroas at the same time. This raises the frightening possibility that they didn't know which Figueroa they were getting when they signed Luis R. to a minor league deal in 2004.

In looking at the keys to Puerto Rico's success in the tournament through the first two games-other than their surfeit of Luis Figueroas-many have pointed at the playing surface of Roberto Clemente Stadium. The stadium, constructed in 2000, features artificial turf that is older and "not nearly so nice" as that in nearby Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the temporary home of the Montreal Expos during their death knell days. Watching two Dominican players bouncing balls off the turf in practice, it seemed to me that they might as well have been playing on concrete. Would the funky turf be enough to give the Boricuas an edge against the Quisqueyanos? Let's throw things back to the bullet points:

  • In stark contrast to game one, both of the starters for game two were legit prospects. Fabio Castro is only 21 years old, and he has already made it to the majors-he was a mid-season pickup by the Phillies, and was used as a LOOGY down the stretch. In the minors, Castro's control looked shaky (95 walks in 213 minor league innings) but here he was throwing darts, painting the black perfectly for a strikeout in the first.
  • Jonathan Albaladejo is not as advanced as Castro. At 23, he's only gotten as high as AA in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. He's 6'5" with a big frame. Sunday night it didn't look like his fastball was as big as he is (my kingdom for a radar gun!). He got ahead in the count well enough, but showed a tendency to nibble afterward.
  • Two on, none out in the bottom of the first: Miguel Tejada got to a one ball, two strike count and then had a batting helmet crisis. After trying on every helmet in the Dominican dugout, Tejada came back to fill the count, which provoked a conference on the mound. Albaladejo looked so serious and tentative it was like he was playing chess with Death. Death won, Tejada walked, and another conference on the mound ensued.
  • Tony Batista knocked in the first run on a little squibber. Francisco Garcia, a Dominican newsman, fed me some Caribbean records, held by this Dominican team: 38 RBI for Batista takes the record, with Tejada only slightly behind him with 36, which was Tony Armas, Sr.'s record total prior to this Series starting.
  • The Dominicans scored three more runs-and the Dominican fans started to sound like they owned the house-when the rally was ended on a play at the plate. Alex Fernandez inexplicably failed to slide going home on a close play, and Molina tagged him out easily.
  • Et tu, MLB.com? Why on Earth is the Super Bowl the top story at MLB.com when baseball is being played, anywhere in the universe?
  • After I started talking about Castro's improved control, he walked Molina and Gotay back-to-back to load the bases in the second. Castro only escaped the inning unscathed thanks to the absolute gun that Tejada has for an arm-he nailed Luis Matos on a play from deep in the hole.
  • In the bottom of the second, with a man on first, Cora was playing so close to Anderson Hernandez that I halfway expected them to start chatting. Cora got burned when Hernandez slapped the ball past the third baseman, using the turf to his advantage. Following Hernandez, Polonia must have heard that he had family members dissing him, because he slashed a sharp double down the right field line, his second hit of this game after collecting three against Mexico on Saturday.
  • In the top of the fourth, Nelson Cruz made a nice play in foul territory, catching a ball right on the bullpen mound. There is maybe two feet's space between each of the open bullpen mounds in Roberto Clemente and the foul line. An outfielder can't shy away from the mounds because if you do, the ball could easily fall fair. PECOTA really likes Cruz as a prospect, even though he's a little old. The projection sees Cruz as a 20-homer type, suggesting Cruz will post a .261/.324/.466 line if given 482 at bats. A bit of trivia: Cruz was once traded, along with game one starter Justin Lehr, for Keith Ginter.
  • With the score 9-0 in favor of the Dominicans in the fourth inning, lefty Miguel Martinez took the mound. Martinez's motion reminded me of Juan Rincon, with an exaggerated pronation at the top of his delivery that made me wonder if he has a screwball. Martinez has been in the independent leagues since washing out of the Seattle organization at the high-A level.
  • Boxer Felix Trinidad threw out the first pitch, and since we were in blowoutville, Puerto Rican fans were shamelessly coming down to get their pictures taken with him while the game was going on. To his credit, I didn't see Trinidad turn anybody down.
  • Meanwhile, back in the game, Hiram Bocachica got robbed on a great play from Bernie Castro in the left field corner. Castro went busting through the outfield wall, which fortunately looked to have some padding.
  • It turned out Martinez did have a screwball (I think-live, it's really hard to distinguish from a change), but he didn't have what it took to stop the Dominican juggernaut. In the bottom of the seventh, he left the bases loaded for Ivan Maldonado, who promptly uncorked a wild pitch to make it 10-0. By the end of the eighth it's 12-0.
  • In the ninth, Jose Vargas-a onetime Indians prospect-was brought in to close things out for the Dominicans. Vargas turns 30 before opening day, but his minor league strikeout numbers were good, and it looks like he's throwing really hard. Of course, part of that could be that he was throwing like there was no tomorrow because there were scouts in the crowd-he was wild in a way that looked like he might be overthrowing.
  • One of the things that didn't make my column on Day One was how impressive Anderson Hernandez was on defense. In the ninth of this game, he made a great catch on a popup in front of second base, then tried to make a flip behind his back to catch a runner off second. He got an error on the play, but it was a great display of body control by the young second baseman.
The game ended, and the Dominican fans stormed the field, flags trailing behind them. All around the press box reporters were in shock as a crowd of several dozen fans took a victory lap around the field at Roberto Clemente Stadium. "You'd think they just won the championship," I heard more than one Puerto Rican newsman say. It was a big win, sure, but the tournament is only halfway over. We can be sure the Puerto Rican team and fans will remember this when the teams face each other again in the (hopefully) Wednesday finale.

Monday action features:

3:00 PM ET

Dominican Republic (3-0)
vs.
Venezuela (1-2)

7:00 PM ET

Puerto Rico (2-1)
vs.
Mexico (0-3)

We'll be back tomorrow with another installment from Carolina, Puerto Rico.

Derek Jacques is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Derek by clicking here or click here to see Derek's other articles.

Derek Jacques is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Derek's other articles. You can contact Derek by clicking here

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