Puerto Rico taking arsenal to Round 2
With loaded staff and hearty offense, team headed for Miami
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
With a three-game sweep complete in Round 1, Javier Vazquez will be rested and ready to open Round 2 for Team Puerto Rico against Team USA. (Getty Images)
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That Team Puerto Rico used its home-field advantage as well as its stockpile of Major League talent to advance to the second round of the World Baseball Classic surprised no one.
Doing it without having to mess with that pesky Caribbean neighbor, the Dominican Republic, now that might have surprised a few. Ditto for clinching Pool D with a second win over runner-up ... the Netherlands?
Whatever happened around them, Puerto Rico's players were clearly confident home would only lead them somewhere else they'd want to be: Miami, for the second round of the Classic, starting Saturday with a matchup against Team USA.
Getting there might have been more than half the fun, because Puerto Rico -- with its fans rocking the house every night -- made the most possible out of its three-game sweep at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.
With superstar Pudge Rodriguez setting the tone with a huge game in the opener against Panama -- 4-for-4 with two homers -- this was a team on a mission to make a special week in San Juan that much more special.
They did that. Now, that's in the past.
"There is another round that we have to go to, and we have to work hard there and do what we did here to try to move forward," Rodriguez said.
Everything went according to plan for Puerto Rico, and that means Javier Vazquez is available to pitch the second-round opener against the U.S. on ample rest, and it means the bullpen will be fresh and the team as a whole healthy heading to Miami.
While Puerto Rico boasts a hearty offense with Rodriguez, Mets star first baseman Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, Alex Rios and clutch catcher Yadier Molina, each one of them would have to agree it wasn't offense that made the home fires burn in San Juan.
It was the pitching staff, which allowed just one run (earned) over 27 innings while striking out 28 and walking just eight.
"Something we have to do is give a lot of credit to our [pitching]," said Delgado. "In three games, we only had one run against us. And before that, there was talk about batting, batting, batting, but pitching is what loaded us.
"From the point of view of the offense, we had to look for a way to make adjustments, because we can do a better job, especially in situations with batters on bases. Those are the runs that we are going to need. There is space to improve. The important thing is that we did qualify in first place and we're going to Miami, and we're going to keep on playing hard."
Certainly, they've given themselves a hard act to follow with three wins and drama to the nines.
Molina, for instance, ranks his double in the eighth inning of Monday's dramatic win over the Netherlands not only right up there with his homer in the 2006 playoffs, but a notch above it -- in his heart, at least.
"I would like to say I think this here in front of you people and in front of my family," Molina said, "it's one of the greatest moments of my life. Definitely I would pick here. The double that I hit [Monday] is going to be in my heart all my life."
So as Team Puerto Rico heads for its Classic future, there's not much more it could have asked from the first round: A home sweep in front of a crowd that matched its own intensity.
"I think this is a great event for Puerto Rico," said Delgado. "For the last few years we haven't produced as many players as some of the other Latin countries. As a Puerto Rican, we don't like that. We like to see our game continue to grow.
"This is our passion. This is the game that we love. And the reason why we say we love it and we continue to push it and encourage young players to continue to play is because of events like this."