02/02/12 10:34 PM EST
Resilient Figueroa a strong arm for Puerto Rico
By Jesse Sanchez / MLB.com
"I hope to be one of those guys like Benjamin Button," Figueroa, 37, said. "I get younger and better with age."
Figueroa could be on to something. His story does appear to get more interesting with each passing day.
On Thursday afternoon, the right-hander gave up one run on seven hits and struck out eight in 6 2/3 innings for Puerto Rico's Indios de Mayaguez to lead them to a 3-1 victory against Venezuela's Tigres de Aragua in the first game of the 2012 Caribbean Series. It's a good start for Puerto Rico, especially when you consider the island has not won a Caribbean Series title since 2000.
In the nightcap Thursday, Dominican Republic starter Kris Johnson and a trio of relievers shut down Mexico's offense, allowing only three hits in Escogido's 2-1 victory. Johnson, who spent some time with Boston's Triple-A club last season, struck out four and was charged with only one run in the victory. Kansas City Royals pitcher Luis Mendoza gave up two runs and struck out five in six innings, but it was not enough and he was tagged with the loss for Mexico.
On Friday, Puerto Rico will square off against Mexico in the first game of the day, followed by the Dominican Republic against Venezuela.
"I wasn't great, but I had enough stuff to slow down that tough Venezuelan lineup," Figueroa said. "I'm just happy the offense was able to back me up today."
Former Major Leaguer Ruben Gotay drove in two runs for Puerto Rico. Jeff Dominguez, drafted by the Mariners in 2004, also drove in a run for the Indios. Dominguez played in 127 Minor League games for the Marlins last season.
"Nelson was outstanding," Puerto Rico manager Dave Miley, who also manages the Yankees' Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre club, said. "He's one of those guys you pull for. He's living the dream. I guess we all are, being able to wear a uniform after all these years. "
Miley is right. If anybody is living the dream, it's Figueroa.
The righty, who has spent parts of five seasons pitching for the D-backs, Phillies, Brewers, Pirates, Mets and Astros since 2000, was out of baseball in the United States after the '04 season.
He spent the next two years bouncing around Venezuela, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, China and some independent leagues before a five-month stint in the Minor Leagues with the Nationals in 2006. Two years later, Figueroa signed with the Mets as a free agent.
After two seasons with the Mets, Figueroa was selected off waivers by the Phillies in 2010. Three months later, he was picked up by the Astros when Philadelphia put him on waivers. He was released by Houston last August.
But the resilient Figueroa bounced back.
He signed with the Pirates a week later. Last month, Figueroa signed with the Blue Jays.
"I'm back here because I want the chance to keep pitching in the big leagues," Figueroa said. "I could be sitting somewhere in an office and dealing with rush hour traffic, but instead the stadium is my office and I come to work and get to play and have fun."
Figueroa pitched for Escogido this winter. He left the Dominican Republic after the Leones won the title on Monday to be home in Arizona for his child's birthday party. He arrived back on the island at midnight Wednesday and said he wouldn't miss the Caribbean Series for the world.
The truth is, the series might have missed him if he hadn't showed. Figueroa has won games for the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Series in the last five years.
"Having the chance to play for three countries is very special and I don't know if anybody has ever done that before. One of my motivations was to give Puerto Rico a chance to win and dedicate the title to my grandfather. He passed away in March and he was always one of my biggest supporters. I want to do it for him."
In the immediate future, Figueroa said he will be ready if called upon to pitch the final game of the series for Puerto Rico in five days. In 20 days, he'll report to Spring Training with Toronto.
"I'm just hoping they give me a chance to show what I can do," he said. "I'm going to go out there and try to win a job with the team, no matter what role. I hope to help the team reach the heights that I have reached this winter."
Miles likes his pitcher's chances.
"Somebody asked me how well I knew Nelson and all I could say was that I managed against him and never liked facing him very much," Miles said. "It's a lot better having him on your side."