03/19/09 1:33 AM ET
Venezuela leaves Miami as top dog
Confident club has plenty of swagger after beating USA to win Pool 2
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
Ten days ago, following a loss to the United States as well as a less-overwhelming-than-expected win over Italy, Venezuelan fans were in a panic. The club's most evident weakness, middle relief, had been exposed. The team was one loss away from a humiliating first-round exit. Now those same fans are exulting over five straight wins, a Pool 2 championship and a berth in the semifinals. Venezuela extended its run with a 10-6 victory over Team USA on Wednesday night at Dolphin Stadium.
"This team is doing the small things to win the games," said manager Luis Sojo. "When there is teamwork in the way Venezuela is playing, that's very important. Throughout the series, you have seen from the time this Classic started that there is a different star every single day. ... All the guys are focused. All of them are expecting to help out in something that's being achieved, and that is winning the championship."
Over its winning streak, Venezuela has outscored its opponents 30-11. It was challenged but rarely threatened in Pool 2 play, posting wins of 3-1 over The Netherlands, 2-0 over Puerto Rico and now 10-6 over the United States. A team that looked vulnerable in the first round of pool play now looks as impressive as any squad remaining in the tournament.
And it was particularly appropriate to cement that status against the USA because it was against the same opponent that Venezuela encountered its lowest point of the Classic thus far. In a 15-6 thrashing at the hands of the Americans during first-round pool play, Venezuela looked outclassed. On Wednesday, the tables were turned.
"I think that loss, against the United States in Toronto, made us realize that we can play better than what we did there, especially against the USA," said catcher Henry Blanco. "I think from that point on, the team woke up and tried to do the best we can, and here we are."
On Saturday and Monday, Venezuela did it with pitching and defense. Starters Carlos Silva and Felix Hernandez set the tone, the middle relievers did enough to get it to closer Francisco Rodriguez, and the offense provided just enough runs to bring home the victory. On Wednesday, it was a different story entirely, with Venezuela scoring as many runs in the second inning (six) as it did in the previous two games.
And that was despite the absences of starters Melvin Mora, Ramon Hernandez and Bobby Abreu. Mora and Hernandez were scratched due to minor injuries, while Abreu was held out as a precaution on a rainy night with a wet field.
"Today, the guys got turned loose again," Sojo said. "There were very significant times at bat, and we were able to score six runs in one inning, then we scored three in another inning. ... This team is ready. This team could explode offensively at any time, and this was one of those days."
Venezuela hung six runs on USA starter Jeremy Guthrie in the second inning, aided by an Adam Dunn error but highlighted by RBI doubles from Blanco, Jose Lopez and Miguel Cabrera. Four of the runs charged to Guthrie were unearned, but they weren't cheap. They were the result of a barrage of base hits against the right-hander.
But despite grabbing a 6-1 lead, Venezuela had to scrap to hang on. Starter Armando Galarraga surrendered three runs in 3 1/3 innings before handing it over to his bullpen. After Cabrera's RBI single made it 7-3 in the fourth, Ramon Ramirez permitted Mark DeRosa's two-run homer that cut the lead to two. An RBI groundout by David Wright pulled the United States within a run, but Max Ramirez drilled a three-run dinger in the bottom of the sixth to provide more breathing room.
"I was looking for a good pitch to hit," Ramirez said. "I knew that the ball was going to go. He threw me a slider, he hit it. Initially, I didn't know that the ball was going to go out of the park, but then I knew I hit a homer, and I was quite pleased."
It's the first trip to the knockout round for Venezuela. The team was eliminated in the second round of pool play in 2006, finishing third in its group behind the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
Venezuela will play in the first semifinal at Dodger Stadium on Saturday night at 9 ET. The United States will face the Pool 1 winner on Sunday at 8 p.m., with the winners of those two games playing in the finals on Monday at 9 p.m.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.