Saturday, March 11, 2017

Hard work, prep preceded Colombia's joy

There's nothing subtle, nothing top secret, about Dayan Diaz's fastball. It's a sledge hammer -- or at least that's how it must have seemed to Jamie Romak.
He swung and missed the 96-mph heater on Saturday afternoon, and just like that there was unparalleled joy in the dugout of Colombia's national team and in sections of the stands at Marlins Park.
Diaz had struck out the veteran outfielder, who represented the tying run, and Colombia had a 4-1 victory over a Canadian team that featured Freddie Freeman and Justin Morneau.
While it didn't quite make up for the win that got away against Team USA in the World Baseball Classic a night earlier, Saturday's contest counted as the biggest victory in the history of Colombian baseball. It was the result of months of masterful preparation by manager Luis Urueta, his staff and his players, who are making the most of the opportunity they gained by winning a 2016 qualifier in Panama.
"We have dreamed of this to represent our country, and in the same way as soccer players who are watched and [unite the people of our country]," said shortstop Donovan Solano, who was with the Marlins in 2012-15 and played briefly for the Yankees last season. "You see the Colombian national team play soccer play elimination games for the World Cup. I think it's a dream for us to represent our country, and for Colombians to follow us and to support us both in Colombia and here."
There were at least as many Colombians as Canadians in the crowd of 17,209, and they spent nine innings ringing cowbells, blowing on noise-makers and doing whatever it took to make themselves heard. They remained as animated as they had been on Friday night, when Jose Quintana and three consecutive doubles gave them a 2-0 lead into the fifth inning against Team USA.
It took 10 innings for the United States to gain a 3-2 victory. Had the Colombians gotten a big hit late in the game -- they had a man on third with two outs in the eighth before Pat Neshek ended the threat with a strikeout -- they could be 2-0 in Pool C and set to advance to San Diego for the second round.
Urueta compared the near-miss against Team USA to the feelings after Miss Colombia was mistakenly awarded the Miss Universe crown by Steve Harvey before having it taken back and put on the head of Miss Philippines.
"Yesterday was just to show that we play baseball," Urueta said. "When a mistake was made with Miss Universe, and they awarded the crown to the other one, it made [Miss Colombia] more famous. I think last night the same thing happened to us. We also lost, and I think we are more famous for that reason.''
Braves ace Julio Teheran got Colombia started against Canada, just as Quintana had done the early heavy lifting against Team USA. But Urueta's lineup includes no players who are expected to be on Major League teams when the season begins next month, so he and his staff have done yeoman's work in making the best use of players like Solano, second baseman Adrian Sanchez and center fielder Tito Polo.
Teheran was terrific. He allowed a first-inning run on Freeman's single but nothing else while working five innings.
Urueta doesn't have another Quintana or Teheran on his roster, so the Colombia pitching staff seems likely to quickly be stressed.
"Tomorrow we will come out to play and to focus and to give 100 percent of us, regardless of who is playing," Solano said. "I know that we will all enjoy that game against the Dominican Republic."
Why not? They're playing with house money after a historic victory and a defeat they will speak of proudly throughout their lifetimes.

Mercy! Puerto Rico thumps Venezuela

Mets infielder T.J. Rivera launched a two-run homer to left Friday to lift Puerto Rico past Venezuela, 11-0, with two outs in the seventh inning, putting the World Baseball Classic's mercy rule in effect in Jalisco, Mexico.
The Astros' Carlos Correa and the Cardinals' Yadier Molina also homered in what developed into an offensive onslaught that puts Puerto Rico atop the Pool D standings with Italy at 1-0. Venezuela is now tied with Mexico, each at 0-1. The top two teams will advance to the second round after round-robin play is complete.
Mets righty Seth Lugo became just the second starting pitcher this WBC to reach the sixth inning, following White Sox lefty Jose Quintana's gem for Colombia against the United States in Miami earlier Friday in Pool C, with a 5 1/3 innings of one-hit ball.
"Any time you face lineups like that you've got to stay with your focus," Lugo said. "That's what you do all season. It's definitely going to help."
Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, meanwhile, was credited his first World Baseball Classic loss after a 2 2/3 innings that ended with a bases-loaded walk -- something he's done just six times over his 12-year MLB career. Hernandez, who had also never given up a run in Classic competition, also reached 51 pitches, meaning he cannot pitch again in the first round.
Correa's impressive shift to third: With a slew of shortstops, including the Indians' Francisco Lindor and the Cubs' Javier Baez, Puerto Rico moved Correa to third base for the Classic, and the Astros' star made a seamless transition, with two remarkable stops.
In the fifth, Correa made a diving snag to his left to rob Salvador Perez of a hit. Then, in the sixth with Venezuela threatening to cut into Puerto Rico's 2-0 lead, Correa threw across his body to get Martin Prado on a one-hopper for the second out. Though the play left two Venezuelans into scoring position, neither would score. Correa's homer gave Puerto Rico a 3-0 lead a half-inning later.
"He did everything," Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "With any game, we have the kind of team that any given day, somebody has got to step up, and we saw that today." More >
Lugo doesn't back down: With Lugo five pitches shy of the 65-pitch limit, Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez attempted to relieve the right-hander as he was warming up before the sixth, to no avail. The umpires informed Rodriguez that Lugo, per Classic regulations, had to make at least one pitch after warming up before being pulled.
Lugo then proceeded to notch his third strikeout, getting Alcides Escobar on a foul tip low and away off his trademark, high-spin curveball -- widely considered a Statcast™ marvel. That was the final batter of his impressive outing.
After the game, the 27-year-old was quick to share the credit with Molina, Puerto Rico's veteran backstop.
"I didn't have to worry about my game plan," Lugo said. "Just stick with him and trust what he's calling, and it made it that much easier.
"A couple times he worked on my mechanics and fixed up on that while I was out there, said we've got to slow down, not make it too nasty, just trust it and throw where my target is. It just gives you a big boost of confidence." More >
Yadi goes yard: Molina made his 2017 Classic debut in style, rocketing a 3-1 two-seamer into the right-center-field bleachers to give Puerto Rico a 5-0 lead. Molina, who recently bleached his hair for the Classic, was greeted by teammates emerging from the dugout, all aggressively grazing their heads as homage.
"[Beltran and Molina] are the two leaders of the team, and they enjoy being the leaders of the team, and they know it," Rodriguez said. "It's not only this, they are leaders in baseball in Puerto Rico, and there are a lot of young people that look up to them and admire them, and they want to follow their footsteps.
"Molina, Beltran, Beltran, Molina, whichever way you want to call the combination, that's what took us to the sub-championship in 2013, and that's what's carrying us in 2017." More >
Felix's first Classic loss: Hernandez issued a bases-loaded walk with two outs to the Astros' Carlos Beltran that gave Puerto Rico a 2-0 and ended his night. Equally significant, however, were the at-bats prior. Lindor drew a four-pitch walk to put runners on first and second, then Correa legged out a grounder that took an awkward hop off Prado to load the bases.
"Felix started very well. He was very quiet on the mound," Venezuela manager Omar Vizquel said. "He threw very good pitches, but he started getting into trouble when he already had 29 pitches in the inning, and then with two people on base, I'd rather not stretch him out from there, and I changed medicine. That inning was difficult for us, obviously for him. I didn't think he wanted to come out, but we have to respect the rules."
Correa, the No. 1 overall pick by the Astros in the 2012 Draft, had never played third base at the professional level. His 544 career games spanning the Majors and Minors have all been played at shortstop.
Venezuela: Venezuela finds itself on the brink, only to be greeted by an Italy team that rallied for five runs in the ninth inning to stun Mexico, 10-9, on Thursday. First pitch is slated for 3 p.m. ET on Saturday, live on MLB Network and MLB.TV.
"We have a very hard game ahead of us," Vizquel said. "You know that you have it difficult when tomorrow is do or die. We have to do everything and win that game either way."
Puerto Rico: Puerto Rico meets Mexico at 9:30 p.m. ET Saturday in a matchup that will give the winner the inside track on winning Pool D. Watch the matchup live on MLB Network and MLB.TV.