World Baseball Classic | Pool C

Puerto Rico surprises Venezuela to advance


Puerto Rico beat heavily favored Venezuela 6-3 to move on to the second round at Marlins Park.

Edwin Rodriguez never got a chance to manage at Marlins Park.

He will next week.

Rodriguez, who became the first Puerto Rican-born manager in the majors when he led the Marlins to a combined 78-85 record between parts of the 2010 and 2011 seasons, punched a ticket to Round 2 of the World Baseball Classic in Miami when his team rallied to knock off Venezuela 6-3 on Saturday night.

Pool C play at Hiram Bithorn Stadium will conclude Sunday, but Puerto Rico (2-0) and the Dominican Republic (2-0) already know their teams will be advancing to face the top two teams out of Pool D. Puerto Rico and the Dominicans will play Sunday night at 7:30 to decide who wins the pool.

Marlins pitcher Henderson Alvarez, who entered the game in relief in the fifth, took the loss for Venezuela. He pitched three innings and gave up the lead on a two-out RBI single by Angel Pagan in the fifth.

Alvarez was pulled in the eighth inning after plunking Alex Rios and giving up a single to Carlos Beltran to start the frame. Puerto Rico tacked on three runs after that, including two on Luis Figueroa’s double to right. Alvarez was charged with five hits, three earned runs and a walk in three-plus innings. He threw 31 of his 51 pitches for strikes.

Puerto Rico trailed 2-0 when Omar Infante doubled and scored, and Marco Scutaro came home on Pablo Sandoval’s RBI double in the third. Puerto Rico tied it 2-2 on Mike Aviles’ two-run single in the fourth.

The defeat marks a disappointing end for the Venezuelans, who finished third in 2009 and featured a roster with 10 All-Stars, including Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. This marks the first time in WBC history Venezuela has failed to get out of the first round.

Spanish hang tough

Not every team comes to the WBC stacked with major-league talent. A few, like Spain, brought a lot of hungry career minor-leaguers who have only chased the dream of playing in the big leagues.

For Paco Figueroa and his twin brother, Danny, a pair of 30-year-old former Miami Hurricanes, getting a chance to play against Jose Reyes, Robinson Cano and Hanley Ramirez was a thrill Saturday.

Having the tying run standing on first base in the ninth — and stranding him there in a 6-3 loss to the Dominican Republic — is something the Figueroas won’t soon forget either.

“A lot of people would probably feel good about coming close, but not us,” said Paco, who was standing on second base when Rays closer Fernando Rodney struck out Rafael Alvarez, a minor-league veteran of 18 years, with the bases loaded to end the game.

“If we could have put together something like that earlier in the game you never know what would have happened. In baseball you [put] pressure on anybody anything can happen. Of course, you’re playing against All-Stars and they have a great team, but it’s still baseball and that’s what we all thought. Our pitching has been great. Our hit totals have been the same both games. It’s just timely hitting. We haven’t had it.”

Spain, which has just one major-leaguer on its roster (Astros relief pitcher Rhiner Cruz), was expected to be overmatched in the tournament. But the team held its own, matching hits (nine) with the Dominicans on Saturday and falling 3-0 to host Puerto Rico on Friday.

Spain was one of 12 new teams added to last year’s qualifying tournament. In a nation of 47 million people, only about 8,000 play baseball at an organized level, according to the Spanish Baseball Federation.

Right-handed pitcher Eric Gonzalez is the only player on the 28-man roster who was born in Spain, the lowest number of natives on any team in the tournament. Only a few of the players have ever lived in Spain. Most of them are from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and the United States. They are eligible to play based on ancestral ties to the country.

The Figueroas qualified to play for Spain through their Spanish-born father Francisco, who signed them up for T-ball at Flagami Park when they were 4 years old. They have shined ever since, starring at Miami Gulliver Prep and the helping lead the Hurricanes to two College World Series appearances.

“Playing for Spain has been a great opportunity to keep playing and to see the world,” said Danny, a 43rd-round pick of the Orioles in 2005 who made it all the way up to Triple A in 2010 before deciding to retire after the 2011 season. He now works for HealthSun, an HMO company in South Florida.

“I’ve been with them since 2007,” Danny said. “To be playing here in the WBC you can’t ask for anything more. Regardless of what happens, me and my brother have been living a dream.”

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