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February 7, 2008

Caribbean Series 2008

Day Five

by Derek Jacques

My wife traveled with me to the Dominican Republic, just as she did to Puerto Rico with me last year. We work together at my other, non-BP job, and we're lucky enough that our business isn't usually tied to any one place, geographically. This enables us to distress, blur, and perhaps someday completely erase the line between work and vacation.

My wife's a gamer. For most of the time that I've been in the press box, working on creating content for all of you to read, she's been back in Puerto Plata, working and hitting the beach. So she decides to take a few days off from the working vacation, and simply vacation. Yesterday, she came with me to the game, so she got to participate in all sorts of fun activities, like "sit here for two hours before the game while I answer questions on the internet." Not that I phrased it that way, but you get the idea.

So she decides to go on a whale-watching trip on Wednesday; it's a voyage roughly halfway across the island, so she had to be up at an ungodly hour. And I suggest that she take the good camera, a SLR with actual lenses, with her to document her marine mammal-themed voyage. I even make sure she packs the extra battery. She goes off on her trip, and since I don't have a column due, I get a bit of sleep.

And then, less than an hour later, I wake with a start. Bartolo!

As in, Bartolo Colon. As in, trying to get some good photographs of him was pretty much the reason I borrowed the camera in the first place. I had imagined Will Carroll performing forensic examinations using my pictures, in the vein of Kevin Costner in JFK ("Look at that weight shift-back, and to the left. Back, and to the left. Back. And to the left."). Instead of taking pictures of Bartolo Colon's pitching motion, that camera would instead be taking photos of whales. There's a joke in there, somewhere, but I'm not going to make it. After all, Bartolo Colon's in the house, and he looks…hungry.

Now that we're done with "Derek is an idiot-a continuing series," let's talk about the games. The two Dominican teams came into Wednesday as the only ones with any chance of winning the Caribbean Series. If Dominican Team #1 (the Cibao Eagles, the hometown team in the city of Santiago) won and Dominican Team #2 (the Licey Tigers, the Eagles longstanding bitter rivals) lost, we'd be set up for a winner-takes-all final game between the two teams on Day Six, the final scheduled day of the Series. If Licey won and the Eagles lost, the Licey would win its record tenth Caribbean Series title, and Day Six would play out as a couple of meaningless lame-duck games. Finally, if the Dominican teams kept pace-both losing or both winning-Licey would have an advantage, but not a guaranteed victory; the Eagles could still force a playoff by beating Licey in their Day Six matchup, which would set up a tiebreaker game on Friday.

So how did things play out? Let's start with the early game, Mexico facing off with Licey:

  • People keep asking me about the minor league prospects here at the Caribbean Series, and for the most part, I've choked on mentioning the very best of them: Juan Francisco, a switch-hitting third baseman, who was recently rated our tenth-best prospect in the Reds organization. One of the reasons I haven't brought Francisco up is because his trademark power hasn't manifested itself this winter. He's very raw still-he won't be 21 until late June-and some think that he's feeling the pressure, batting third in Licey's otherwise veteran lineup. In the first inning, he manages a ground single to drive in Emilio Bonifacio from second base for the first run of the game.
  • If you've never heard of Walter Silva, who started for Mexico yesterday, it's understandable: he's one of Mexico's players who has never plied his trade in the U.S. baseball system. One of the distinguishing qualities of Mexico, as opposed to the other Caribbean League participants, is that it has a real summer league. While Venezuelans and Dominicans see their best players go north for the spring and summer, many Mexicans stay home, playing in what is technically rated a Triple-A league. Silva's a 31-year-old whose fastball isn't amazing, but he changes speeds well and moves the ball around, and if the Mexican League translations serve us well, in 2007 he was a pretty decent performer, with a translated ERA of 4.52. That data's hard to come by, though, since Mexican League stats are sometimes hard to come by. If you look up Walter Silva on a number of the standard stats sites, you'll come up blank, as if he does not exist.
  • Silva's Dominican counterpart, Omar Beltre, was consistently in the mid-90s with a smooth delivery. Like Silva, his performance record has a huge hole in it-he drops off the map after 2004, but in his case not because he went off to the Mexican League. Beltre was caught in the big marriage-visa scam a few years back: some crafty intermediaries figured that since ballplayer's wives almost always meet little to no resistance in getting visas to live in the US, why not introduce some minor leaguers with the need for some extra dollars to a few women willing to pay to get into the States? The answer, it turns out, is that it's illegal. I don't have my law books handy, but if I recall correctly, a fraudulent visa application means you can't apply for another for ten years-but in reality that's closer to a lifetime ban, since a visa application by someone with a history of fraud isn't likely to ever be accepted. The issue with Beltre is much the same as it is with Miguel Tejada's prospective legal troubles: allowing someone to immigrate to your country is a basically a contract-we let you live here and you agree to obey our rules-and why would you ever make that contract with someone who's shown themselves to be untrustworthy?

    Still, watching Beltre slice his way through the Mexican lineup, I couldn't help but wonder, can't this guy get a presidential pardon or something? I say this because the president is a baseball fan, the former owner of the team that controls Beltre's rights, and a lame duck who will spend much of next January signing what's likely to be an immense stack of pardons. I don't even know if a pardon is the proper tool to use here-Beltre's troubles are technically administrative rather than judicial-but I'd love to see what Beltre could do if he was allowed to return to the US. The only person in the Mexican lineup who really touched him through six innings yesterday was DH Robert Saucedo, who in the second inning got a fly up into the jet stream blowing directly out to left field for a homer. Jose Bautista would exploit the same wind conditions to hit his second homer of the series in the fourth, giving Licey the lead back 3-1.

  • He's not a prospect, but another position player I like is Nelson Cruz. PECOTA remains optimistic about Cruz, predicting at .274 EqA despite his struggles in extended action last season. He scored on Bautista's homer, hit a sharp double the opposite way in the sixth, then made a smart running play on Bautista's grounder to the left side of the infield, taking off for third after a delay. That play set up Licey's fourth run, and the team was cruising.
  • There were warning signs for Licey, however. Ron Belliard looked half-awake much of the game; in the eighth, catcher Said Gutierrez hit a gapper that rolled to the wall, and looked like a stand-up double, but Bautista hustled and made a great throw to second, which Belliard caught with plenty of time to make the tag…except that he couldn't find the runner. That play eventually led to La Manta summoning closer Carlos Marmol in the eighth inning, despite the many reported restrictions on his usage. In the ninth, with Marmol on the mound, Belliard made a Little League error, failing to get down far enough on a grounder, which scooted between his legs. Now we perhaps have a better understanding of why a major leaguer is batting eighth, behind Timo Perez.
  • The Mexicans pounced on the opportunity like a starved pack of wolves, tying the game on a Carlos Valencia triple and an Oscar Robles single. Estadio Cibao was rollicking with the Mexican rally, with the Aguiluchos-that's what the Eagles' fans call themselves-loving every moment, and singing along with the Mexican fighting songs. You have to imagine a game between the San Francisco Giants and a random opponent-maybe the Florida Marlins?-except that it's held in Chavez Ravine in front of a crowd of Dodgers fans. The schadenfreude in the air was so heavy you could practically bottle it.
  • Things weren't over for Licey yet, however. In the bottom of the ninth, they got a man to third base with just one out, thanks to a shocking display of machismo by pinch-runner Yordanny Ramirez, who stole third base. After walking Ronnie Belliard, Mexican manager Homar Rojas went to the mound, and summoned Nelson Figueroa. This caused gasps in the press box and riotous cheering in the crowd, since Figueroa, who we discussed back on Day Two, had pitched for the Eagles in the playoffs, including several good performances against Licey. He was scheduled to open the Caribbean Series for Mexico on Day One, against the Eagles, but was held out for reasons many people didn't quite find convincing. Instead, he pitched into the tenth inning against Licey, restricting Licey to just one run in that span. And yesterday, on two days' rest after throwing 119 pitches, he was coming out of the bullpen with Licey's winning run 90 feet away. He responded by absolutely nailing down the win, getting Matt Tupman and Emilio Bonifacio in the ninth, and pacifying the Licey offense in the tenth after the Mexicans took the lead. If the Eagles win this tournament, I suspect that there will be a statue of Figueroa erected somewhere in Santiago.
  • The Mexicans went ahead for good when Roberto Saucedo-a guy who left the Angels organization in 1997 after getting only 144 at-bats in two years of work, a guy who had an EqA of just .238 in Mexico last summer-went deep for the second time in the game, against Oneli Perez. Mexico won, 7-4, and gave the Eagles a chance to make their Day Six matchup against Licey a true championship game.

After the classic upset between Mexico and Licey, the nightcap couldn't help but be disappointing:

  • Bartolo Colon, starting for the first time since January 21, was trying to show the world that he's still a starter you should pay an eight-figure salary. On Wednesday night, he really wasn't; just like in his start in the Dominican League finals, Colon's fastball sat in the high 80s, touching 92 mph on the stadium gun. He generated a few more swings-and-misses than he had in his last start, but even when he looked like vintage Colon, blowing a high fastball past a batter, the radar gun reading was only 90.

    Despite all this, Colon held the Venezuelans hitless for three innings, but when the team locked in on him in the fourth, they started hitting frozen ropes. After three consecutive line drives in the inning, Francisco Cruceta was up in the pen, and there was a long conference on the mound. An inning later, once a couple of runners were on, Colon was pulled after only 57 pitches.

  • With Colon out of the game, the wheels came off for the Eagles. Manager Felix Fermin showed a little Tony La Russa in his tactical choices, churning through seven relievers after Colon's departure. Eight pitching changes, plus another four by the Venezuelans, is no fun, not in any language, and the Venezuelans liked hitting against most of the arms Fermin pulled out of the pen. In particular, St. Louis farmhand Jose Martinez, who generated a respectable .244 EqA in the Texas League last summer, had a ball, delivering three hits and two doubles against this parade of relievers. The Eagles mounted a late comeback on an Edwin Encarnacion homer-the jet stream blowing to left field had died down by the nightcap, to the Eagles' disadvantage-but it fell short.

So the spoilers, Mexico and Venezuela, did their jobs with flair on Day Five, setting up a Day Six confrontation between the two Dominican teams with a decided advantage for Licey. Will we still be playing baseball in Santiago come Friday? We'll find out tonight at Estadio Cibao.

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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