Saturday, when I first installed myself in the Estadio Cibao press box, something peculiar happened: a waiter came around offering everyone rum and cokes. Now, that itself isn’t peculiar-thanks to Dominican rules of hospitality, you’re constantly being offered food and drink. You fly into the capital city’s airport and virtually the first thing that happens when you get off the plane is that someone offers you a rum and cokeā€¦even if your plane lands at 10:00 AM. So after the initial gesture I was again surprised when my press colleagues started passing around ice-cold cans of Presidente, the more famous of the various local beers. That raised an eyebrow. Then, an hour or so later, the rum and coke waiter came by again. Offer free booze once, and drinking’s condoned, in a hush-hush, we-won’t-tell-if-you-don’t way; offer wait-service drinks regularly, and drinking’s encouraged-in fact, it becomes a functioning open bar. I’m no great expert on press boxes-so far, I haven’t been allowed to ply my trade in any of the major league variety-but I sense that this is unusual. Special, even.

There’s a festive atmosphere here that’s unique, or at least not stamped from the same stoic North American baseball mold. In the stands there’s dancing between innings, and it’s expected that you’ll dance even if your team is getting trounced (a slightly different version of “There’s no crying in baseball”). Both Dominican teams bring out their cheerleaders to dance on the roofs of their dugouts every few innings, and all four teams (to the delight of at least one of my colleagues’ children) have mascots. That’s not so alien to our thought. But then there’s the Mexican contingent, who combine their love of baseball with a love of dress-up that’s reminiscent of a Star Trek convention. There’s a handful of the costumed partygoers who are members of the Mexican team’s entourage, as evidenced by their constant dancing on the team’s dugout roof, and, yesterday, an impromptu demonstration of masked Mexican professional wrestling. But others seem to have a wrestling mask, or a giant sombrero, or an Aztec priest outfit just lying in the closet, waiting for moments like these.

Of course there’s a pretty good reason for the carnival atmosphere of the games: it’s currently Carnaval. When I asked for reader feedback the other day, I didn’t imagine that I’d be running email from my mom, but I figured who better to out me as the world’s worst Catholic:

Those were carnival costumes, the colorful fantasy masks with the horns and duckbill face being one of Santiago’s carnival characters (los lechones), who line dance as a group or comparsa, whips in hand. Don’t forget the day after tomorrow is Mardi Gras, in most places that celebrate it, the culmination and final day of carnival, with lent starting on Ash Wednesday. But in the DR it’s different.

Dominican independence is February 27, and the Dominican custom is that the biggest carnival parades fall later on in the month, after the start of Lent. It’s a local tradition that flies in the face of the Catholic church authorities, who complain vociferously every year that the government of a Catholic country like the DR should not condone public carousing, dancing, and merrymaking during the austere Lenten season. The authorities shrug their shoulders; it’s a long established custom and there’s a lot of tourist dollars at stake.

Nonetheless the local population won’t hear of a curtailed carnival. The one in Santiago is famous, and so is the carnival in nearby La Vega, every Sunday during February. Each town’s carnival has different masks and costumes; you can check out the action here.

Now that we’ve gotten the cultural notes out of the way, what about the games? The name of the game in Day Two was veteran starting pitching, with right-handed Latino hurlers starting the early game, and soft-tossing gringo southpaws going in the nightcap. On to the bullets:

  • The Mexican starter, Nelson Figueroa, is one of the winners of this winter league season. The 33-year-old got a spring training invite from the Mets during the Dominican League finals, in which he pitched for the champs. Between the finals and yesterday’s start, Figueroa was making his third consecutive start against Licey. In terms of his repertoire, he’s a crafty righty, with a fastball that barely sneaks into the low 90s, but good movement and a nice touch for mixing his pitches and speeds. Would this repertoire play at the major league level? A 3.99 EqERA in the Mexican League sounds promising, but his age, the fact that he was in the Mexican League in the first place after splitting 2006 between the Atlantic League and Triple-A with the Nats, and particularly the lack of a power pitch all combine to render his chance an extreme long shot. In various major league trials between 2000 and 2004, a 261-inning sample, Figueroa showed bad peripherals (EqSO/9 of 4.50, 42 homers allowed), indicating that his stuff wasn’t fooling batters back then. But hope springs eternal.
  • There’s no question, however, that Figueroa knows how to pitch. With none out and a man on second in the ninth inning, Figueroa pitched like a man with ice water in his veins, striking out two and popping up the man who did the most damage against him all afternoon, the PiratesJose Bautista. Bautista hit a massive homer about three quarters of the way into the bleachers in left-center in the second inning, which almost made it out of the stadium on a bounce. Bautista’s one of those players who was caught in the stats/scouts divide, coveted by those looking at his tools while dismissed somewhat by those underwhelmed by his spotty performance and the many interruptions in his development. It seems like Bautista’s splitting the difference between the two ideas about him, turning into an average hitter, neither a star nor a scrub. The recently-released PECOTA weighted mean projections like him to hit .259/.340/.441 in his age-27 season, not a huge improvement over what he did last year.
  • Not to harp too much on Figueroa, but he’s a rarity in the Caribbean Series field in another way-he’s allowed to pitch deep into games. In the winter leagues, typical usage for starters is five to six innings and gone, regardless of whether they’re pitching well. Jose Mercedes, Licey’s starter, was out after 94 pitches in six innings, even though he was handling the Mexican offense pretty well and hadn’t allowed an earned run. Figueroa pitched into the tenth inning, and had been allowed to go as deep as 130-140 pitches in his Dominican Winter League playoff starts.
  • Licey manager Hector de la Cruz, whose nickname is “The Manta,” opened himself up to some criticism when he didn’t pinch-run for catcher Matt Tupman in the tenth inning; Tupman eventually ran into an out at third, killing the team’s rally. Luckily, Arizona relief prospect Jailen Peguero bailed the team out of some trouble in the bottom half of the inning, coming on in relief of his top PECOTA comp, Jesus Colome. The Dominicans won in 11, and Peguero got the victory.
  • After Licey won, the pressure was on its rivals, the Eagles, to keep pace against the Venezuelans, the tournament’s dark-horse choice to play spoiler. To start the contest, both teams turned to North American veterans of the left-handed persuasion. Derek Lee is a 33-year-old Texas Rangers farmhand who hit his peak as a minor leaguer with the Brewers in 2000. That season he went 13-3 between the Southern League and Triple-A, but after that he spent most of the next three seasons back in Double-A. Andrew Lorraine actually made it to The Show, managing 175 swing-man innings with seven different major league teams, most recently the Brewers in 2002. Watching the two of them pitch was a bit spooky, because in many ways they’re the same pitcher. They’re both about the same height, they both short-arm the ball across their body, and neither throws hard. Lee’s velocity was consistently a bit lower than Lorraine’s (dipping into the high 70s rather than staying in the low 80s) and his arm’s a bit stiffer in the delivery, unlike Lorraine, who has a slightly looping motion. If you told me that it was one guy instead of two, and was scurrying from one dugout to the other between innings and changing uniforms, I’d have to consider the possibility.
  • Rafael Furcal starred for the Eagles in the nightcap, walking to lead off the game and scoring the first run, then knocking in an insurance run in the seventh inning of a 3-1 win. It’s indicative of the talent gap in this game that backing Lee, all the relievers the Dominican champs sent out of the bullpen had major league experience: Francisco Cruceta, Joel Peralta, Randy Choate, Denny Bautista, and Arnaldo Munoz are all major leaguers, or have been recently.

With apologies to Aunty Entity: Three countries enter the 2008 Caribbean Series, one country leaves. Actually, three countries enter and two countries leave, since I’m sure that the Venezuelan and Mexican teams don’t plan to live here permanently. But you get my point. By tomorrow morning, there will be only one undefeated Dominican team, with victory in its sights; there will also be one unfortunate winless team that’s virtually eliminated. We’ll be here for Day Three-Dominican Judgment Day.