At 12 minutes before the scheduled start of Monday’s first game, Estadio Roberto Clemente Walker was a ghost town. A crowd slowly trickled in after the umpires took the field–a leisurely stroll in the bright Caribbean sun. When the Dominican national anthem (Quisqueyanos Valientes) came on, no one in the crowd had to stand up–they hadn’t yet found their seats.
You’d hardly have known that the key game of the series was about to take place. If the Dominicans won, they’d be 4-0, and the pressure would be on Puerto Rico to keep pace–even though they were merely facing the execrable Mexican squad in the nightcap. Meanwhile, at 1-2, the Venezuelans had to win today to keep their hopes of a title alive. Off with the bullet points we go:
- Dominican starter and Red Sox middle reliever Julian Tavarez has a strange hesitation in his windup, where his arm is directly behind his plant leg before coming forward in a long, high three-quarters motion. Sometimes he breaks out a Laredo delivery that’s completely different–you’d think it would be a piece of cake to pick it up, since there’s no hesitation in the windup and he rushes the delivery, kind of like a slide step. But it was good enough to whiff Ramon Hernandez in the first inning. Lesson here: it’s harder to hit professional pitching than it looks.
- Vlad Nunez is a major-league veteran with more than 400 innings pitched for the Diamondbacks, Marlins, and Rockies. In 2005, he shopped his wares to four different organizations by playing for their Triple-A affiliates, but nobody was biting. I wouldn’t think he was lighting up the radar gun on Monday afternoon, but his fastball and breaking pitches had a ton of movement on them.
- Another strange thing: all over the park, people have umbrellas out to protect them from the sunshine. When I noticed this, I took a quick look at Weather.com’s report for New York City, “Sunny, 18 degrees, feels like 3.” Not that I’m gloating or anything. Seriously, though, by the fourth inning the afternoon sun was shining directly into the righthanded batters’ eyes, which could be one reason that Julian Tavarez didn’t allow a hit in the first three innings pitched.
Gregor Blanco, a switch-hitter batting lefty, got the first hard-hit ball against Tavarez leading off the fourth. However, he had the bad luck to hit it toward Anderson Hernandez, human vacuum cleaner, who promptly turned the grounder into an out.
- In the top of the fifth, Luis Rodriguez made a carbon copy of Anderson Hernandez’s play on a hard-hit ball off the bat of Bernie Castro that came off the fake turf like a rocket. Contrary to what they teach you in little league, Rodriguez’s salvation was backing up and letting the ball knock him down, knowing that he’d have time to recover and make a throw.
Randall Simon ended the Tavarez perfecto with a hard-hacked line drive down the right-field line. Jose Castillo followed with a double (yeah, another double) down the right-field line. Castillo’s been on my mind a bit, both because of a reader e-mail and because he has one of the few pending arbitration cases left–he’s asking for $2.2 million, the Pirates are offering $1.8 million. By VORP, Castillo was the worst regular second baseman in the National League last year, almost precisely replacement level. Although he has a good defensive reputation in Pittsburgh, he’s not considered the best second baseman on this Venezuelan team. The strangest part is, he looks the part of an outfielder. His body is large for a second baseman, and it’s not hard to envision him bulking up to an outfielder’s physique. Which brings us back to that zero VORP, the futility with the bat. Bulking a player like this up seems about as practical as putting a spoiler on a wood-paneled station wagon. If he can’t make it in the majors as a second baseman, he likely just isn’t making it.
- Anyway, the Venezuelans got a run in the fifth, followed by the lowest-energy celebration we’ve seen in the Series, just a smattering of the players half-heartedly wandering out of the dugout to greet their runner after he scored. Part of the tepid reaction could have been the lack of a large, vocal crowd to fire the players up, but part of it looked like the team was already beaten.
- In the bottom of the sixth, there was a large conference at the mound to check Tavarez for injury. This followed a rundown play where Miguel Tejada, who’d committed a throwing error that put Gregor Blanco on second, caught Blanco in a rundown on a grounder to short. The injury check comes up badly–Tavarez doesn’t feel comfortable throwing practice pitches and walks off the mound with a noticeable limp. I’m sure the Red Sox brass won’t be happy about this.
- In the seventh, Nelson Cruz slapped a single up the middle, the Dominicans’ first hit since the second inning. Then Jose Fernandez hammered a hard grounder to second that ate up Rivera. The ball went off his body into foul ground, Nelson came the whole way around from first base to score, and Fernandez wound up on third. By this point the Venezuelans had committed ten errors in the series, two in this game alone; defensive lapses are killing them. Then Alex Fernandez dinked one past a diving Ronny Fernande to make the score 4-1. The Dominican flags came out in earnest, and the sound system was rocking the Dominican baseball fight song Dominicano Soy!, which means “I am Dominican!”
- In the bottom of the seventh, after Joel Peralta loaded the bases with one out, Leo Nunez took over. Nunez is a stringbean and not terribly tall. Still, his stuff is, for lack of a better word, greasy. His velocity seems to take the batters by surprise, getting them to swing against him like they’re standing on a slippery floor. One of those awkward swings nets a grounder right at Tejada, who starts the 6-3 double play.
- Tejada would go on to start the eighth inning rally that netted the Dominicans three more runs and put the game out of reach, 7-1. Tejada really seems to enjoy the tournament, and the status as the Dominican Republic’s “national player” that his participation in the Series brings. I wouldn’t go the next step of equating his happiness with productivity–you simply can’t tell about these things.
Hector Almonte came on to pitch the ninth for the Dominicans. Almonte is a stocky fellow with a thick trunk, and he throws close to straight overhand. On Almonte’s first batter, the home plate ump was hit, by a foul or a stray pitch, I couldn’t tell. By the ump’s motions, it looks like the ball hit him in a very sensitive place. Alberto Castillo, being the veteran that he is, talked to the ump after the trainers backed off, to make sure he was okay. Maybe Randall Simon wishes he was as good at niceties, since he was caught looking at a very marginal pitch when the action continued. The next batter also struck out, making one wonder if the ump was in a rush to get to the locker room. Anyway, soon enough the game was over. Over four games and 45 innings, the Dominicans have allowed just four runs. That’s going to be tough to beat.
In game two, Puerto Rico stuck with their Day Three lineup, while Mexico made some changes. One change they didn’t make was taking Karim Garcia out of the lineup–whoever told me he was out for Mexico’s next game was wrong. For those of you scoring at home, that was another E-10 (Jacques, anecdote).
The new players included Vinny Castilla at third (for Herber Gomez), Carlos Gastelum at second (in the ninth spot used by Jose Sandoval), and the “versatile” Alfredo Amezaga remaining in the leadoff spot but again moving around the field, this time from second to short. It’s been interesting how, after Amezaga’s defensive meltdown in center on Day One, manager Bundy has continually moved Amezaga to more important positions on the defensive spectrum. What’s next? Does Amezaga put on shin guards and a chest protector? Does he practice throwing the knuckleball?
While you ponder these questions, some more bullets:
- Mexico’s starter, Troy Cate, is a lefty, currently property of the Cardinals organization. At the age of 26, he hasn’t gotten past Double-A other than a one-start cup of coffee in the Pacific Coast League back in 2003. With a big leg kick and high three-quarters arm slot, Cate resembles Al Leiter, who I’m sure he’d love to emulate in a “late bloomer” kind of way. If he can get to Triple-A this season, he might still have a decent shot at a big-league career. In the first, he hung tough with a man on third and one out, whiffing Hiram Bocachica and breaking Juan Gonzalez’s bat to get out of the jam.
- By the way, the reason that there was one out was because number two batter Wycho Figueroa successfully sacrificed with a man on second and no outs in the inning. Now, the Mexicans have allowed an average of 11 runs a game. Why on earth would you give those guys an out? How does that make sense?
- If Cate might still be counted as a star on the rise, you’d have to say that Jose Santiago’s career is on a different trajectory. A 32-year-old veteran of the Royals, Phillies, Indians and Mets, Santiago pitched for Rome of the Atlantic League in 2006. That was not an upward move.
- In the bottom of the first, a ball went under Alex Cora‘s glove, driving in a run and giving Mexico its first lead of the tourney. For reasons no one could explain, the official scorer ruled this a hit for Luis Garcia, rather than an error on what should have been a relatively routine play.
- Garcia is a strange case. He started in U.S. ball at the age of 17 as a pitcher. After washing out of that in Rookie ball at the age of 19, he went the position player route as a first baseman and corner outfielder. While I can think of a number of times the position player-to-pitcher conversion worked–it almost seems a de rigeur developmental step for relievers, these days–when was the last time someone converted well the other way? Babe Ruth? Garcia looked like he was going to be an exception. In 2004, at the age of 25, he slammed 32 homers for Las Vegas in the PCL and looked for all the world like a prospect. Afterward, he faded out of baseball in the States-a 151-AB season for the Mets’ Triple-A team (in which he hit nine homers) and then…nothing. He went to Monterrey in the Mexican League, and hit like a madman all summer (to the tune of a .317 EqA), before going to Hermosillo and batting pretty well all winter.
Here at the Caribbean Series, he was Mexico’s offense against Puerto Rico. With a couple of men on in the third, he got another single, and another RBI. Mexico led 2-0 at that point. Garcia would end the day with four hits.
- In the fourth the ball found Amezaga, who played a good second base but seems a bit overmatched left of the keystone. Amezaga’s error keyed a two-run Puerto Rican rally, and allowed the Puerto Ricans to tie the game.
- The most intriguing pitcher of the PR-Mexico matchup may have been Fernando Cabrera, a reliever in the Indians system who has split the last three years between Triple-A and the majors. He’ll have to show some improvement after bouts of wildness and gopheritis in 2006 (13 homers ad 34 walks in 69 innings), but Cabrera’s fastball was very impressive on Monday night while he shut down Mexico for two innings.
- The law of unintended consequences: in the fifth inning, Erubiel Durazo struck out, then got in home plate umpire Francisco Ramirez’s face. After being ejected, Durazo threw his helmet to the ground in the umpire’s direction, and the helmet rolled on the ground until it hit the ump’s foot, albeit very softly. As a result of Durazo’s ejection, slugger Derrick White had to be inserted into the lineup as the DH. On account of this, when the Mexicans faced a two-out, bases-loaded situation in the sixth, they were unable to pinch-hit for their number nine hitter, Carlos Gastelum.
All throughout the game (and going back to Karim Garcia’s ejection in the previous game) the Mexican team was at a high simmer, ready to boil. In the ninth inning, Amezaga kept jawing with the umps, delaying the game. After Armando Rios’ bases-loaded single in the tenth gave Puerto Rico a 4-2 lead, Jon Weber argued and was ejected on the very first pitch of his at bat. The ejections and arguments marred what had been Mexico’s first competitive match of the tournament. After the game, manager Lorenzo Bundy looked like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, his voice shaking with anger as he tried to keep from calling the umpiring a sham.
For the Puerto Ricans, victory means that they keep themselves in good position to take down the Dominicans–but they have to face potential spoiler Venezuela first. That matchup will happen at 7:00 pm Eastern. Earlier in the day, at 3:00 pm Eastern, the Dominicans will take on the frustrated, demoralized Mexican squad. As always, feel free to tune in, and to pepper me with questions (or your favorite post-Ruth pitcher-to-position player converts) before, after, and during the game.