Commentary

Venezuela rides wave of emotion to win

Puerto Rico now headed to elimination game against Team USA on Tuesday

Updated: March 17, 2009, 9:50 AM ET
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Team USA had just left the field after its workout Monday afternoon when Heath Bell thought out loud about which team he would be facing Tuesday night.

"I think it'll be Venezuela," he said.

And he had good reason: Puerto Rico had all but dominated this World Baseball Classic, having won each of its first four games, one of which was a mercy-rule thumping of Team USA on Saturday night. So there was no reason to think Puerto Rico likely wouldn't be able to continue its streak of success, setting up a United States-Venezuela game Tuesday. But that was not that case, as Venezuela beat Puerto Rico 2-0 in a wild game filled with raucous chants, devoted fans, unadulterated passion and a WBC first: an attempt to use instant replay. It was, in essence, everything this tournament set out to be.

"That was the game everybody expected," Puerto Rico catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. "[Tuesday] is another game. Everybody in the club is fine, and we've got to get ready for [Tuesday]."

[+] EnlargeVenezuela & Puerto Rico
Amy K. Nelson/ESPN.comFans of Puerto Rico gather to play dominoes before Monday's game against Venezuela. They'll be back Tuesday for the game against Team USA.
So now the U.S. will face Puerto Rico in an elimination game. The loser will be out of the tournament; the winner assured a spot in Los Angeles for the semifinals. For two of the best teams in the WBC, it has come down to Tuesday's game.

"They're going to be ready for [the game against Team USA]," Puerto Rico manager Jose Oquendo said. "They know the reason for which we're playing. We don't know what's going to be happening, but at least we'll hold our head up high as we're going to play ball hard."

That's all Oquendo's team has done in this tournament. Entering Monday night, Puerto Rico was 4-0 with an 0.53 ERA and a WBC-best .453 on-base percentage. It hadn't committed any errors or had any wild pitches or passed balls.

Puerto Rico general manager Lou Melendez said he thought his team had perhaps been a bit overlooked. In a meeting in Fort Myers, Fla., before exhibition play started, Melendez gave the players a message.

"Nobody's talking about us," he said. "We have a good group of players here, and nobody's talking about us."

They are now. And the players will definitely have the crowd's support Tuesday. In the first game against the U.S., the majority of the fans were overwhelmingly Puerto Rican. In fact, the U.S. has drawn what has seemed to be the least support. It hasn't gone unnoticed by most of the players.

Ryan Braun called it "disappointing," though catcher Chris Iannetta had a different outlook.

"It's great to have people that passionate about the game and about baseball," he said about other teams' fans. "It's a good atmosphere. Who they're rooting for is not that big a deal to us."

While the U.S. game will get top billing Tuesday night, what occurred in Miami on Monday night should not be overlooked. The game was well-pitched. If anything, Puerto Rico suffered from unfortunate timing, since Venezuela started Felix Hernandez, who pitched like the ace he's considered to be with the Seattle Mariners.

Hernandez was emotive, intimidating and overpowering. After he was pulled in the fifth inning when he reached the maximum 85 pitches, Hernandez jumped up and down and yelled after his replacement, Carlos Vasquez, struck out Carlos Delgado with runners on first and third to get out of the inning and preserve a 1-0 lead.

Jose Oquendo
AP Photo/Jeffrey M. BoanFor the first time in this World Baseball Classic, Puerto Rico ran into trouble.

If there was any question about whether the World Baseball Classic meant something to the players on these two teams Monday night, it was answered in Hernandez's postgame comments.

"That's the biggest game I've ever pitched," he said. "To pitch in these kinds of games, that's what I like. I'm just proud to represent my country in this great tournament.

"Today was the most exciting day of my life."

It showed. The Venezuelans spent most of their night chest-bumping and yelling to the heavens. The most suspenseful moment came in the seventh inning, when the umpires tried to use instant replay on Ramon Hernandez's home run. However, the feed in New York did not work, so the umpires had to make their own ruling, which was a solo homer that gave Venezuela a 2-0 lead.

A celebration ensued, and only grew larger when Venezuela closer Francisco Rodriguez recorded the final out. The celebration was as lively as when a major league team clinches a playoff berth.

Now Oquendo has to get his club ready to face the U.S., which Puerto Rico dominated in an 11-1 win Saturday night, but which cannot be underestimated.

Oquendo knows the support will be there. The scene will likely be a repeat of Monday's pregame, during which the parking lot at Dolphin Stadium looked like it was a football Sunday in November. There were thousands of fans tailgating, barbecuing and throwing footballs.

Laudelino Mulero flew in from Puerto Rico with his father, his uncle and a friend. They met another group of Puerto Rican fans before Saturday's game, so they exchanged phone numbers and they all met before Monday's game to barbecue, play dominoes and salsa dance.

"If it wasn't for this football stadium in front of me," Mulero, 28, said, "I'd swear we were in Puerto Rico right now."

When Puerto Rico qualified for the second round, he bought tickets and caught a plane up here for the week. He said he wouldn't miss Tuesday's game, and he expected a big turnout. When asked if he thought there were more Puerto Ricans or Venezuelans in attendance Monday, he didn't hesitate.

"More Puerto Ricans," Mulero said, "because we're the better team."

Mulero's team was not on Monday, but it has one more shot to prove him right.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.

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