In front of a boisterous crowd of headband-wearing, flag-waving and country-loving baseball aficionados from all over the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic edged Venezuela, 2-1, to become the first team to qualify for the World Baseball Classic semifinals in San Diego.
"We went through it, and I feel fantastic because most of the guys now are in playing shape," Dominican Republic manager Manny Acta said of the second round. "The pitchers have been able to go out there more than once, and the hitters had enough at-bats, so I'm happy for the guys."
A game of great pitches will likely be remembered for its most infamous. Tied, 1-1, in the seventh, Dominican Republic catcher Alberto Castillo raced home from third base on a passed ball by Venezuela catcher Ramon Hernandez for the game-winner.
Hernandez missed it, Castillo deserves credit, but it was Baltimore starter Daniel Cabrera who shone first on a memorable night full of Dominican heroes -- and perhaps one or two Venezuelan goats. Cabrera's stoic look on the mound was fierce and the smile he boasted when he came off the field said it all.
Watch out for the Dominican Republic.
The only question that remains for the D.R. is whether it will be the first or second seed from Pool 2. The Dominican Republic must now wait on the outcome of Wednesday's matchup between Puerto Rico (1-1) and Cuba (1-1). A Cuba victory on Wednesday would give the Dominican Republic the top seed because of a Dominican victory against Cuba earlier in Round 2. Puerto Rico defeated the Dominican Republic earlier this week, and thus would earn the top seed if it defeats Cuba.
Regardless, the top two seeds from Pool 2 will face each other on Saturday in the first semifinal game at PETCO Park. The top two seeds from Pool 1 -- which includes Team USA, Mexico, Japan, and Korea -- will square off in the semifinals that same day.
"We're really not worried about who we're going to face on the other side, in the other pool," Acta said. "We just want to be the one that comes out of this one."
With the loss, Venezuela (1-2) is eliminated, and succeeded in doing the unthinkable on an electrifying night filled with booming Puerto Rican salsa, merengue from the
Dominican Republic and enticing tropical tunes: Go home on a sour note.
Venezuela's offense managed just one hit against five Dominican pitchers.
The Dominican Republic scored first in the first inning, when Placido Polanco came home on a single by Moises Alou off Venezuela starter Freddy Garcia. Polanco led off the bottom half of the frame with a single, and advanced to third on a double by Miguel Tejada.
The lead would hold up for four innings.
"It was a good ballgame," Acta said. "We had a chance to score some runs earlier in the game, couldn't do it, and Freddy just stepped up and did a great job. We've got to give credit to our guys."
As for Cabrera, he shut down the Venezuela with four impressive shutout innings. He struck out seven and walked only one batter in the 60-pitch outing. He said he started preparing for the World Baseball Classic in January and spent the last two weeks working with Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone on perfecting his mechanics.
"All I can say is that this is very important and I have never played in such an important game as I did tonight," Cabrera said. "I'm very proud and very grateful that Manny gave me the opportunity to pitch in such an important game. It is an honor to represent my country."
With Cabrera out of the game, Venezuela rallied against reliever Francisco Liriano.
Juan Rivera walked in the fifth and advanced to third on a double by Venezuela shortstop Omar Vizquel. Rivera came home on a ground ball off the bat of Bobby Abreu to tie the game, 1-1.
Liriano recovered to finish with an impressive stat line, allowing one hit and one run in 2 2/3 innings. He walked three batters and struck out two.
"I think that a lot of people concentrate on the lineup, and that is usually one of the questions that is asked," said Dominican Republic pitcher Miguel Batista, who earned the win. "We have to think of the Classic as a whole, not so much as to what one does or the other one does. Let's look at what the pitchers did tonight."
The veteran catcher hit a one-out single, stole second base, and advanced to third on a single by Polanco in the memorable seventh. Tejada walked to load the bases and set the stage for the improbable finish.
With a 2-0 count to Albert Pujols, Kelvim Escobar's delivery escaped the Baltimore catcher, allowing Castillo to motor home for the Dominican Republic's second run.
It was more than enough.
Venezuela loaded the bases in the ninth inning with two outs against closer Duaner Sanchez, but Edgardo Alfonzo flied out to right field to end the game and unleash the biggest bulla of the night.
The celebration on the field was dwarfed by the celebration in the stands.
"We have a big Dominican community here," Acta said. "I thought the game was so good that I don't think the players were even paying attention to the fans, they were so focused on the game. But we do feel at home here."