Aching head begets heartache

Aching head begets heartache

MARACAY, Venezuela -- There will be thousands of sore heads in this country on Wednesday from celebrants who partied like there was no manana.

But the sorest noggin in Venezuela will belong to a tourist from the Dominican Republic.

Erick Aybar, a shortstop in the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim farm system, got conked by a towering fly ball in what surely was the strangest ending in the history of the Caribbean Series -- or any other series, for that matter.

It shouldn't have ended this way, with Henry Blanco's popup caroming off Aybar's head into left field, enabling Alex Gonzalez to come racing around to score the winning run in the bottom of the ninth, giving Venezuela a 5-4 triumph and its first Caribbean Series title since 1989.

It's a shame that Aybar will be remembered for the gaffe, because it wasn't his fault at all. It was the left fielder's ball all the way, but Napoleon Calzado didn't get there, halting his movement as he sensed the shortstop coming back.

And then there was the decision by the Dominican Republic's amiable and capable manager, Rafael Landestoy, to tempt the fates by bringing Jorge Sosa out to protect the 4-3 lead, knowing that he'd have to deal with Alex Gonzalez, due to hit third in the inning.

It was Gonzalez who launched the rocket heard 'round Latin America just three nights earlier, that three-run homer in the ninth that turned a 9-8 deficit into an 11-9 victory and made this a win-or-else proposition for the Dominican Republic troupe.

Veteran Julian Tavarez had just mowed down six consecutive Venezuela hitters in the seventh and eighth, using minimal energy and pitches to do so. But Landestoy knows his talent best, and he determined that Sosa could erase those bad memories of Valencia and get the job done here in Maracay.

No such luck.

Ramon Hernandez, sensational from start (cycling in the opener) to the finish, got the winning rally started with a two-strike bullet to right. It was his 27th total base in six games. He was the Series batting champion at .542 and co-leader in homers (three) and runs batted in (eight).

Baltimore's prize free-agent catch, Hernandez gave way after his 13th Series hit to pinch-runner William Bergolla, who moved to second on Franklin Gutierrez's sacrifice. This brought up Gonzalez with a base open.

The book says you don't put the winning run on. Landestoy asked Sosa to retire a hitter who'd taken him way deep the last time they'd seen each other.

On a 1-1 count, the new Boston Red Sox shortstop went the other way, sending a laser to right field that brought Bergolla steaming home to tie it at 4.

As the stadium erupted, up came Blanco, and up went the baseball -- harmlessly, it seemed. But then Aybar was looking over his shoulder, for an onrushing Calzado, only there was no onrushing Calzado. Turning to find the ball, it instead found him.

The carom went flying, a remarkable distance given that it landed on a human skull.

The pain for Aybar will be physical and emotional, but he should spare himself.

Those who follow this winter pastime in this part of the world give Aybar and his middle infield buddy, Anderson Hernandez, most of the credit for driving Licey to the Dominican Republic championship -- and to this Series that their country has won a record 15 times.

Since Venezuela last celebrated like this, the Dominican has pulled down nine Caribbean Series titles. That gives you an idea why the locals would be partying for quite some time.

Beisbol is huge in this country, bigger even than futbol, if you can imagine that. Kids play anywhere they can find open space, the way they do soccer in most Latin American lands.

The credit for this phenomenon goes to a number of people, from a line of shortstops stretching from Chico Carresquel to Luis Aparicio to Davey Concepcion to Ozzie Guillen to Omar Vizuel to the latest collection of stars -- a crop so lush that this country will be a handful in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

This Series served to introduce us to some promising talents, such as Venezuela's Luis Rodriguez and the graceful Gutierrez along with the Dominican Republic's Alexis Gomez, an athlete with all the skills the Detroit Tigers could be looking for in a center fielder: speed, defensive instincts and an ability to drive the ball.

Just as Ramon Hernandez was clearly the main offensive force in the Series -- his fourth-inning homer awakened his team after the Dominican had taken a 3-0 lead -- Geremi Gonzalez was the pitcher who stood above the rest, yielding only three earned runs in 17 innings.

The veteran right-hander showed amazing toughness in the finale, lasting eight innings and fighting through some very bad early luck.

It was highly uncharacteristic of the airtight Venezuelans, who'd committed only two errors through five games when second baseman Marco Scutaro handed the Dominican Republic its first two runs. Going to his left, he misplayed Miguel Tejada's sharp grounder, enabling Hernandez to score, and Gomez delivered the second unearned run with his 10th hit, a bullet that almost nailed the pitcher.

Venezuela's polished manager, Carlos Subero, has a manner that clearly was comforting his athletes. Late-inning clubs are confident clubs, and Venezuela was murder from the seventh on throughout the Series, starting with its 13 runs in the last three innings of the opener against Mexico and culminating in the grand finale, which played out very much like the classic in Valencia.

Subero's plans for the finale were to get as many innings as he could from Gonzalez and turn it over to his bullpen. Turns out he didn't need closer Francisco Rodriguez.

Setup man Victor Moreno got the last two outs of the top of the ninth, pitching out of a two-out jam, and he became the winner when his mates worked their magic one last time.

It was fitting that the two everyday stars of the club, Hernandez and Gonzalez, were so pivotal in virtually everything good that happened to Venezuela. They'll soon be joined by the likes of Bobby Abreu and Miguel Cabrera and Johan Santana on a club to watch in the global event.

You won't want to take Venezuela lightly in the WBC. These are some tough hombres.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.