Venezuela Rises to the Occasion in the Pool of Death

Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

MIAMI – Welcome to the Pool of Death. Three of the World Baseball Classic’s best teams — the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela — came to Miami last weekend knowing that only two of them would still be there past Friday. (Apologies to Israel and Nicaragua, the minnows unceremoniously chucked into the shark tank.) And by dint of the schedule, it was Venezuela that seemed to draw the shortest straw, opening pool play against the powerhouse Dominican Republic on Saturday night, then facing Puerto Rico, the 2017 tournament runner-up, just 24 hours later. The options before Venezuela: sink or swim.

“When you speak about the pool of death, when you say that Venezuela had the most complicated journey, we Venezuelans are used to that, right?” said manager Omar Lopez before Sunday night’s game. “We are used to complications, tough moments, adversities. Somehow we overcome those obstacles, and this is the same way we are going to play here.”

And that’s exactly what Venezuela did. Buoyed by big bats and some stellar pitching, Lopez’s squad grabbed back-to-back wins over its fellow Latin American super-clubs, taking control of Pool D and virtually guaranteeing the team a spot in the quarterfinals and a date with the Pool C runner-up in Miami a week from now. On Saturday, Venezuela stymied a stacked Dominican lineup and touched up NL Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara in his home park in a 5–1 shocker. On Sunday, they pounded out seven runs in the first two innings en route to a 9–6 win over Puerto Rico. The weekend was a raucous Caracas block party, soundtracked by thousands of fans in red, blue and yellow going wild with every homer and strikeout — outdone only by the Venezuelan players who came spilling out of the dugout to celebrate virtually every hit.

“We knew on paper that these two were the toughest matchups, but at the same time, it’s the most fun challenge,” said Venezuela starter Pablo López after shutting down Puerto Rico. “I get goosebumps thinking about it.”

There’s no shortage of impact players on Venezuela’s roster; few countries can boast a top half of the lineup featuring an MVP (Jose Altuve), a five-tool superstar (Ronald Acuña Jr.), and a batting champ (Luis Arraez). But the presence of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and their equally All-Star–laden rosters in Pool D cast Venezuela as the likeliest of the three to finish on the outside looking in. “Some people didn’t believe in our team,” Omar Lopez said on Sunday night. “They said that we’d get eliminated. Even in our own country, people were criticizing me.”

Not that betting on Venezuela in the WBC has been a winning proposition. The country’s history here is mostly tortured; its best-ever finish is third, all the way back in 2009, and its overall record going into this year’s tournament was a mere 13–12. In 2013, Venezuela failed to make it out of the group stage, falling to both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Four years later, they were routed by Puerto Rico in pool play and advanced only because of some convoluted and controversial tiebreaker rules that got them past Mexico and into a tiebreaker game with Italy; they narrowly won that game, but the Dominican Republic and the United States sent them home in the second round.

Those Venezuelan teams weren’t lacking in talent either; the 2009 squad is probably the best the country has ever fielded, featuring an in-his-MVP-prime Miguel Cabrera along with a young Félix Hernández, Bobby Abreu, Magglio Ordoñez, and Francisco Rodríguez fresh off setting the single-season saves record. But it’s never been enough to get past the game’s elite squads, leaving Venezuela as something closer to the best of the rest. You could largely blame that on poor pitching and a lack of rotation depth. The 2013 team went from third overall to bounced in pool play in part because it didn’t have Hernández, who left the roster after signing his $175 million extension with the Mariners that February. Instead, the Dominican Republic thrashed Aníbal Sánchez in the opener, and Venezuela was left to start Carlos Zambrano in a must-win game against Puerto Rico. By the time Hernández returned in 2017, he was a fading outline of his peak self, though even peak King Félix would have had a hard time lifting a team where the next best arm was either Jhoulys Chacín or Martín Pérez.

This time around, though, Venezuela has the kind of pitching staff that could be good and deep enough to extend its stay in Miami if it can complete its conquest of the Pool of Death. Pérez, who weaved through traffic against the Dominican Republic, is coming off his best season as a pro. Luis Garcia followed him with three overpowering innings, striking out six. On Sunday, López limited Puerto Rico to a single run over 4.2 highly efficient frames, striking out five and getting 12 whiffs, in his now former ballpark. “It still feels like my pitching mound,” he said afterward.

What was new for him was the sellout crowd of 35,000-plus going bonkers with every pitch. The majority of them were decked out in Puerto Rican jerseys or wrapped in the island’s flag, but each López strikeout brought thunderous cheers from the Venezuelan fans packed mostly in the sections behind the first base dugout. “I felt the energy when they were announcing the lineups,” said López, who was throwing as hard as 97 mph in the first inning and averaged 95 on the night. “The adrenaline that everyone told me about in the World Series or people that participated in the World Baseball Classic… it’s a beautiful feeling.”

That energy was there with each Venezuelan run, too. Anthony Santander’s first-inning homer off José Berríos got the party started early, a three-run shot golfed into the visiting team’s bullpen that left Puerto Rico wobbling just five batters into the night. As Santander rounded the bases, roaring and beating his chest, the Venezuelan flag flew from a thousand different seats throughout the stadium. An inning later, Salvador Perez crushed a three-run homer of his own, bringing forth cascading waves of screams and whistles and chants. Crossing home plate and striding into the scrum of teammates bouncing in front of him, Perez emphatically pulled his hands across his country’s name on his jersey. The message was unmistakably clear: The night — and the Pool of Death — belonged firmly to Venezuela.

Pool D Sunday Notes

  • Next up for Venezuela: an off day Monday, then a noon tilt with Nicaragua on Tuesday that should seal the group. Eduardo Rodriguez will start that game for Venezuela.
  • Meanwhile, the pool-closing matchup between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic will almost certainly decide which of the two advances as the second-place finisher. It’s not official: Both teams have yet to play Israel, and the Dominican Republic, which was off on Sunday, has Nicaragua left on its schedule as well. But assuming both take care of business against Pool D’s weakest teams, it’ll be a win-or-go-home game on Wednesday night in Miami. You’re going to be able to hear that crowd from space.
  • As for Nicaragua and Israel, the latter rallied to beat the former in the first game on Sunday, scoring three runs in the eighth. Cruelly for Nicaragua, which led 1–0 through seven, the game fell apart at the hands of the team’s best pitcher, Jonathan Loaisiga. The Yankees reliever gave up a game-tying single to Blue Jays minor leaguer Spencer Horwitz after putting two on with one out, then bizarrely issued an intentional walk to Cardinals minor leaguer Noah Mendlinger after a first-pitch strike, loading the bases. A force out at home followed, but Phillies backup catcher Garrett Stubbs broke the tie with a two-run double to give Israel its first victory of this WBC and keep Nicaragua winless.
  • Berríos’ short start — one inning (plus two batters in the second) with six runs allowed (five earned) — not only forced Puerto Rico manager Yadier Molina to burn through a lot of his bullpen, as he used seven pitchers to finish the game, but also raises the question of whether the Blue Jays righty is a viable option going forward. Berríos got just three swings-and-misses on his 38 pitches, with far too many hittable strikes and few if any chases. Then again, Molina doesn’t have many other options; he’s turning to journeyman reliever Jose De Leon against Israel on Monday night, and the team lacks any established starters beyond Berríos and Marcus Stroman, who pitched against Nicaragua on Saturday. “Anyone can have a bad day,” Molina said of Berríos after Sunday’s loss. “It didn’t go well, but we have trust in him.”

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Blastings! Thrilledge
11 months ago

At the risk of missing some obscure pun: there’s only one S in “occasion.”

Meg Rowleymember
11 months ago

No pun, just a Meg goof.

11 months ago
Reply to  Meg Rowley

Meg, how did you and Ben like the SABR conference over the weekend?