It’s been a tough week for Omar Vizquel, the manager of the Venezuelan National team at the World Baseball Classic. His talent laden squad came into the tournament with high hopes and a roster stacked with major-league baseball stars including two of its very best hitters in Miguel Cabrera (DET) and José Altuve (HOU), along dominant pitcher, “King” Felix Hernandez (SEA). Add in Carlos Gonzalez (COL) and Victor Martinez (DET), and one can understand the the considerable optimism at their chances.
Game 1 vs Puerto Rico
In their opening game last Friday against 2013 runner-up Puerto Rico, they were run off the field, losing 11-0 in a 7 inning mercy rule game in which they mustered only three hits. The painful truth about Venezuela in this year’s WBC is that for all the hitters they have, their pitching is very thin. So when their ace, Hernandez failed to get out of the third inning against Puerto Rico, Venezuela’s path to the second round of the WBC looked daunting.
Game 2 vs. Italy
On Saturday against Italy, the Venezuelans fell behind 5-0 into the fifth inning. The poor pitching seemed to rub off on the bats as Venezuela failed to score a run in their first 11 innings in the tournament. Finally, in the 5th inning against Italy, Venezuela’s bats came alive, as the game see sawed into the ninth-inning. Martin Prado (MIA) lead the way for Venezuela with a five it performance but it took a total of 17 hits for Venezuela to hang onto a 11-10, 10 inning win, with Manager Vizquel wearing out a path to the mound, using nine different pitchers to get to the finish line for their first win. After watching his pitchers surrender 22 runs in two games, it is doubtful that Vizquel was looking ahead to the second round in San Diego.
Game 3 vs. Mexico
In their final pool play game, Venezuela had to face host Mexico, who was playing in front of a packed house in their home stadium in Jalisco Mexico. Team Mexico was having their own problems, losing their first two pool play games and needing a win against Venezuela for redemption. Like Venezuela, Mexico’s roster boasted a number of major league stars including first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and relief pitcher Sergio Romo of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Mexico drew on the crowd support early, hanging a 5 spot on Venezuela in the second, and added 3 more in the 5th to extend their lead to 8-1. Venezuela looked lifeless, apparently resigned to a first round exit and flights back to their respective spring training camps in Florida and Arizona.
Mexico continued to pound the Venezuela’s pitching staff, forcing Vizquel to wear out a path to the mound, using eight pitchers on the night, and none of them named Hernandez. Pride appeared to kick in for Venezuela’s all star hitters, as they scored 8 runs of their own in the 5th through 7th innings. But Mexico became the third team in as many games to score 11 runs off of Venezuela’s pitching staff, as they handed Venezuela their second loss in three games. Pool D now had a three way tie with Italy, Mexico and Venezuela finishing with 1-2 records. The WBC tie breaker rule appeared to eliminate Venezuela, and pit Mexico against Italy on Monday for the “play in” game to get to the second round. But a quirk in the tie breaker rule determined that Venezuela edged out Mexico, by the slimmest of margins, .01 runs per inning. Mexico file a protest at four in the morning, but the WBC ruling stood and Venezuela it live to play another day on Monday against Italy the rematch deciding who would wind up playing in the second round at San Diego on Tuesday.
Game 4 – Playoff vs. Italy
Mexico fans showed their displeasure at the tiebreaker ruling by the WBC by staying home for the Italy vs. Venezuela playoff, with only 1,798 fans showing up for Venezuela vs. Italy as compared to more than 15,000 the night before.
In the month of March, the sports world’s focus is usually on college basketball, with teams striving to follow the oft repeated slogan of the late North Carolina State coach, Jim Valvano, “survive and advance”. And despite surrendering 33 runs in three games sought, Venezuela found themselves still alive, t and with a chance to advance. It didn’t matter how they had played in the three previous games. The team needed just one win over Italy to advance to the second round of the WBC.
Omar Vizquel as been mentioned as someone who is destined to manage in the big leagues. He is serving his apprenticeship presently as a first base coach for the Detroit Tigers until that opportunity comes. One has to think however, that his managerial debut as the skipper for Venezuela in the WBC was not the audition that he hoped for.
For baseball fans wondering what kind of manager Vizquel might make in crunch time, found out on Monday night. They saw a manager who was willing to take some risks when it counted most, and provide a steadying hand through the finish line. Vizquel’s first move was in replacing his starting second baseman Jose Altuve, he of 600+ hits over the past three in him MLB. He opted to start Roughned Odor, the excitable second baseman for the Texas Rangers. The move paid dividends in the 9th when Odor delivered a long single off the left field wall, to break a 2-2 tie in the 9th. One play later, he again rolled the dice, sending Odor home on a suicide squeeze perfectly executed by Kansas City shortstop Alcides Escobar, to provide an insurance run. When Italy homered in the bottom of the ninth, that run turned out to be the game-winner.
So ugly or not, Venezuela and its skipper Omar Vizquel had found a way to do what Coach Valvano preached back in 1983 when his North Carolina state team captured the NCAA men’s basketball championship — “survive and advance”.
On Monday, while Italy and Venezuela fought for the final spot in the second round, the other three teams to advance, unbeaten Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and once beaten USA were already safely ensconced in their hotel rooms waiting for the next round of games to begin. Venezuela may be a late arrival into San Diego but given the rocky path taken, one has to think they are happy, if not surprised to be there.
Second round play will begin on Tuesday night in San Diego, at 6pm PDT, in a matchup of the unbeaten’s, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic while Venezuela will face the USA on Wednesday night.