03/09/06 1:41 AM EST
Puerto Rico flexes muscle vs. Dutch
Three homers lead home team ever closer to advancing
By Jesse Sanchez / MLB.com
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The city's favorite team is one victory away from staying around for a while.
Behind three home runs from three of the country's biggest stars, Puerto Rico powered past the Netherlands, 8-3, in front of 15,570 at Hiram Bithorn Stadium on Wednesday, and continues to inch toward securing a spot in the second round of the World Baseball Classic, also to be held in the stadium.
The win was the second in as many nights for Puerto Rico, leaving the club only one victory away from earning the top seed in Pool C for the next round. Puerto Rico squares off against Cuba (1-0) on Friday.
A victory by Cuba against the Netherlands (0-1) on Thursday would also secure one of the two advancing spots in the tournament for the undefeated Puerto Rico squad.
It's been a challenging tournament for Puerto Rico. The club edged Panama (0-2) by one run, 2-1, on Tuesday. Wednesday's victory against the Netherlands was not any easier although the final score and the number of hits -- 14 -- might indicate otherwise.
Tied at 3 after five innings, Puerto Rico rallied with two runs in the top of the sixth to pull ahead, 5-3. Jose Valentin scored Puerto Rico's fourth run and Luis Matos raced home on a squeeze bunt by Alex Cora for the two-run cushion.
All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez extended the lead to three runs with an opposite-field home run in the seventh inning off Netherlands reliever Jair Jurrjens to end the pitcher's night and put Puerto Rico up, 6-3.
His replacement, Dave Daijer, did not fare much better. He threw one pitch to center fielder Carlos Beltran for a ball and then watched his next delivery sail more than 400 feet and over the wall in center field. Daijer's third pitch nailed Javy Lopez in the hip, prompting a warning to both benches by home plate umpire Kevin Causey.
As for Puerto Rico starter Joel Pineiro, he was in control from the get-go, pitching like the Pineiro of old. The right-hander stymied the Netherlands' offense by changing speeds and keeping virtually every hitter off balance.
The Mariners starter retired the first seven hitters he faced before Netherlands' catcher Sidney de Jong singled to left field for the Netherlands' first hit of the contest. Shortstop Raylinoe Legito followed with another single, but Pineiro would recover and finish the third inning unscathed.
"It starts from here, taking it back to Spring Training and go toward April." Pineiro said. "I like to have a strong start and go out there continue it. Hopefully we can get these two games out of the way and go on to the next round for us and for the people of Puerto Rico."
Pineiro was on a roll. He struck out Braves center fielder Andruw Jones in what appeared to be the start of another easy inning for Puerto Rico in the fourth.
Randall Simon followed with a bloop single to shallow left field and advanced to second base when Matos misplayed it. Simon moved to third on a ground out and scooted home on a throwing error by Puerto Rico shortstop Alex Cintron to cut Puerto Rico's lead to 3-1.
Pineiro finished the frame was done after four innings of work, but finished the night with a respectable line: three hits, two strikeouts and one unearned run in the 56-pitch outing. His replacement, Willie Collazo, struggled, lasting only two-thirds of an inning and giving up two runs -- the last of which came via a throwing error by Puerto Rico second baseman Alex Cora to turn a potential blowout into a tie at 3.
Puerto Rico wasted little time attacking Netherlands starter Rob Cordemans, scoring one in the first inning, albeit on an error, and again in the third on a home run by Javy Lopez.
Puerto Rico extended its lead to 3-0 in the top of the fourth on an RBI single by Bernie Williams that brought home Matos.
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.