Starting Silva backfires on Venezuela

LOS ANGELES -- After he had answered every tepid question, even going so far as to bounce back and forth like a giant pinball from television camera to television camera, Venezuelan manager Luis Sojo was approached by several reporters individually on Saturday before his team's 10-2 semifinal loss to Korea.

Each had the same question.

"So why are you starting Carlos Silva instead of Felix Hernandez?" each reporter asked.

Sojo smiled and responded each time, "He's been my best pitcher."

Each time, the answer seemed absurd. To think of sitting perhaps the best young pitcher in the majors in favor of a starter who had failed in Seattle in his first season after signing a multimillion-dollar contract was implausible.

The reasoning behind the move was simple for Sojo. Silva had a 1-0 record with a 0.82 ERA in 11 innings during the World Baseball Classic, though admittedly, those two starts came against two of the weaker-hitting teams in the tournament in Italy and the Netherlands. Sojo was saving Hernandez for the finals on Monday, though there was no guarantee that Venezuela would even get there.

"This is his riskiest move of the tournament," one Venezuelan reporter had said.

Sojo's decision immediately flopped. Silva walked the first batter, came undone as a result of a fielding error by right fielder Bobby Abreu and sank his Venezuelan team in a 5-0 hole before it even had an opportunity to bat. The Koreans took bad pitches for balls and crushed other ones that crossed the center of the plate.

When the inning ended, Silva walked to the dugout and threw his glove against the wall in frustration. Less than an inning later, Silva was knocked out of the game after giving up a two-run home run to Korea slugger Tae-Kyun Kim. This time, Silva walked to the dugout and did not shake the few hands of teammates who offered their support. He simply walked into the clubhouse and disappeared.

"Let's remember that he didn't get a few calls from the umpires, and that changes everything," Sojo said of Silva.

Sojo said afterward that he did not once consider bringing Hernandez into the game in relief and that he had no regrets about starting Silva.

"We always said we were keeping a schedule," Sojo said. "And with all due respect, Carlos is a really good pitcher. To take away the ball from him would have been a lack of respect on my part. Unfortunately, things did not happen the way they were supposed to happen. I put all my trust in him, and he deserved it."

This WBC had been a redemption of sorts for Sojo, who had been highly criticized by the Venezuelan media and fans for failing to guide the 2006 team past the first round.

"Every man likes to get revenge," Abreu said. "Now he proved he can manage over here."

Days after the end of that 2006 tournament, during an Easter celebration when many Venezuelans burn effigies of Judas, some fans had resorted to burning effigies of Sojo.

But his work in this tournament was almost flawless, aside from the day in Toronto when some in the Venezuelan media criticized the use of Hernandez in relief against Italy instead of saving him for a game against the United States. He had rallied the team after the loss to Team USA and then again after outfielder Magglio Ordonez had been the subject of scorn among Venezuelan fans for his support of president Hugo Chavez.

Some would say that Sojo's easy nature and sense of humor had saved the clubhouse.

"We have such good chemistry," Abreu said.

All of that goodwill seemingly came undone on a chilly evening in Los Angeles.

"That first inning pretty much cost us the tournament," Sojo admitted.

Not only did Silva flop, but the team also was a total mess. The Venezuelan team committed a WBC-record five errors, the same number it had committed for the entire tournament before Saturday. It was a sad ending for a team that had redeemed itself from a such a disastrous 2006 tournament.

"I would have given all my championship rings to have won this tournament," Sojo said. "To me, to win this championship would have been more important than winning any of the championships I've won, because this was representing my country."

Perhaps no other manager in WBC history has been subject to such a roller-coaster ride as Sojo, who has been scorned, adored, questioned and sympathized. Sojo spent the moments after the final game of the 2006 tournament mostly alone, and he took the majority of the blame. This time, Sojo gathered the team in the clubhouse after the game and thanked the players for their effort, something he could not bring himself to do in 2006.

"Don't lower your heads," Sojo told them. "You represented their country well and did a great job."

After the game, Sojo also consoled a sullen Silva, who did not meet with reporters.

"He really wanted to do well," Sojo said.

Ultimately, Sojo and Silva will be linked forever in Venezuelan baseball lore. There will be no need for effigies this time, but there always will be questions about what might have happened had Hernandez started instead.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.