Powerhouses Venezuela, DR clash to open Pool C
Sanchez, Volquez square off in game featuring heavy hitters from big leagues
The Dominican Republic has appeared unstoppable in two exhibition games against Major League clubs.
A different sort of test awaits Thursday night, when it opens World Baseball Classic Pool C play against Venezuela in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in a game that can be seen live on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes at 7:30 p.m. local time (6:30 p.m. ET).
The Dominican rides into the tournament having battered the Phillies, 15-2, on Tuesday and the Yankees, 8-2, on Wednesday, collecting a combined 41 hits. Even without stars like Albert Pujols and Jose Bautista, the squad features plenty of offensive firepower, with Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Edwin Encarnacion, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes.
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Standing in their way Thursday at Hiram Bithorn Stadium will be Tigers right-hander Anibal Sanchez, Venezuela's No. 1 starter with Felix Hernandez not participating in the Classic. Sanchez has pitched five scoreless innings over two Grapefruit League starts this spring, after signing a five-year contract this offseason to remain with Detroit.
The 29-year-old missed Venezuela's third-place finish in the 2009 Classic, thanks to some injury concerns. But he has started 95 games over the past three years and posted a 1.77 ERA over three starts in the 2012 postseason.
Sanchez's Tigers teammate Miguel Cabrera, the reigning American League Most Valuable Player and Triple Crown winner, leads the charge for Venezuela's lineup. He doubled twice, homered and drove in four runs in a 6-5 exhibition loss to the Marlins on Tuesday, then went 3-for-4 with two more homers and three RBIs in Wednesday's 14-10 win over the Mets.
Venezuela's lineup also features the likes of Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Gonzalez, Martin Prado and Pablo Sandoval.
It will be an emotional contest for the Venezuelans, who are playing two days after the death of president Hugo Chavez.
"Right now, I would say probably 30 million people will be watching this tournament, so we'll do our best to not let them down," right-hander Francisco Rodriguez said. "I believe the best thing we can give them is just be able to put on a good show for them."
Venezuela will take on Dominican Republic starter Edinson Volquez. The Padres right-hander has given up six runs on 10 hits in four innings over two Cactus League starts and is coming off a season in which he led the league with 105 walks despite a 4.14 ERA.
The teams will be battling to gain the upper hand in the San Juan pool, which also contains host Puerto Rico and Spain. The top two will move on to the second round at Miami's Marlins Park from March 12-16, against the top two from the Phoenix Pool D of the United States, Canada, Italy and Mexico.
Despite the abundant Major League talent available to both countries, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela both are searching for their first trip to the Classic's championship.
Venezuela advanced to the second round in 2006 and finished third in '09 after a semifinal loss against Korea. The Dominicans were fourth in '06 but suffered an unexpected first-round knockout in '09, when they lost two one-run contests to the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Andrew Simon is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.