Venezuela powers past Puerto Rico

Venezuela powers past Puerto Rico

Box score

SAN JUAN -- The ball was still in flight, soaring through the air of Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Victor Martinez stood there for a few seconds and watched, taking in one of the finest moments of his young career. And before the grand slam had even landed in the last row of the right-field bleachers, the entire Venezuelan team had bounced out of the dugout to make sure it was in proper position to mob him.

A tense game for seven innings, Team Venezuela could finally exhale when Martinez's blast opened the lead to 6-0, which wound up being the final score in a crucial victory over Puerto Rico.

"Once I hit the home run, I was able to see that it was going out of the park," said Martinez. "I felt very happy because I was thinking of the feelings that were going through the minds of my teammates. The team was more comfortable, I felt great joy because it was the first grand slam home run in my career, so it was really important and I felt very happy because it gave us [a big] advantage on the score."

Now, it has come down to this for Venezuela. A win over the Dominican Republic on Tuesday night, and Team Venezuela will be San Diego-bound for the World Baseball Classic semifinals.

A loss, and it will be the Dominican Republic that advances out of San Juan, along with the winner of Wednesday's Cuba-Puerto Rico contest. All four teams in this bracket are now 1-1.

Venezuela suffered an 11-5 loss to the Dominican Republic in the first round in Orlando, and revenge would certainly be sweet in this case. Right-hander Freddy Garcia, who pitched the World Series-clinching win for the White Sox last October, will get another chance to prove what a big game performer he is when he starts against the Dominican Republic.

It was a night to savor for Venezuela, considering its chances of advancing would have been all but finished with a loss to Puerto Rico. Instead, Team Venezuela became the first team to defeat Puerto Rico in this Classic.

"Well, today wasn't different for our pitching. The pitching has been great the whole series, the whole tournament," said Venezuela manager Luis Sojo. "Today we come through with a big hit when we needed it."

And not just the one by Martinez. Take Endy Chavez, an unheralded utility player for the Mets who has emerged into a force the last two days. His two-run shot off Puerto Rico starter Joel Pineiro snapped a scoreless tie. It was the second two-run homer in as many days for the diminutive Chavez.

"You never know in this game, [Chavez is] not supposed to hit homers. He's got two so far. I love you, man," laughed Sojo as he looked at Chavez, who was seated just a few feet to his left in the postgame press conference.

But it was pitching that set an early tone. Starter Carlos Zambrano played a big part, coming up every bit as clutch as his team had hoped. He put goose eggs on the board for four innings, but his high pitch count (71) prompted Sojo to remove him from the game.

Similarly, Venezuela had no answer for Pineiro (4 2/3 innings, four hits, two runs) in the early innings, coming up with two hits and no runs through the first four. But things changed in a hurry in the top of the fifth.

Edgardo Alfonzo started the rally innocently enough with a one-out single. That set up the Chavez to be a hero, as he belted a two-out, two-run homer to right on a 3-1 pitch.

"I was not thinking about just hitting a homer," said Chavez. "I was just concentrating on looking for a good swing, and just being able to connect with the ball. It was a good swing, good contact, and I was thinking it could be a homer, which it was. So the timing and experience of it, it was one of the best moments of my life.

Still, it didn't deter the fight of Puerto Rico, a team that seemed to be on the comeback trail against reliever Carlos Silva in the bottom of the fifth. Singles by Jose Valentin and Alex Cintron led off the inning. But an attempted sacrifice bunt by Alex Cora wound up being disastrous.

Catcher Ramon Hernandez pounced on the bunt and fired to second for the force, and shortstop Omar Vizquel alertly threw to third, where Valentin had strayed off the bag. Valentin slid back in and was called out, though replays seemed to indicate he was safe. That proved to be a rally killer, as Puerto Rico didn't score in the inning.

Puerto Rico kept threatening a comeback, and in the seventh, Eduardo Perez delivered a pinch-hit single against Gustavo Chacin to set up runners at the corners and two outs for the dangerous Ivan Rodriguez. Sojo again went to the bullpen, bringing in Victor Zambrano. With the tension in the packed ballpark rising with every pitch, Zambrano got Rodriguez to pop a 2-2 pitch up to Vizquel to end the threat and that wound up being the last, best chance Puerto Rico had.

The game-breaking rally in that top half of the eighth started with walks to Vizquel and Bobby Abreu. Reliever Ivan Maldonado came on, and hit Miguel Cabrera to load the bases with nobody out. Martinez, who was serving as the DH, got a tasty 2-1 offering from Maldonado and smoked it for his decisive grand slam.

"The other guys set the tone for that homer," said Sojo. "[Victor] was missing the pitches that he was looking for, he didn't connect. But at that particular time, it was like he was going to do something, he was going to come through, and he did that."

Ian Browne is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.