While Aragua had lost 15 players since winning the Venezuelan League, Licey had added more depth to an already imposing roster. And though Aragua manager Buddy Bailey said before the game that miracles happen, his club's try at one fell short -- but just barely. Instead, Ronnie Belliard's four RBIs helped Licey hold on for a 6-4 victory Saturday at Estadio Cibao.
"They're always a hard team to beat," Belliard said. "Every Caribbean Series, man, they're hard to beat. It's not that easy."
It's not all that easy for Belliard to hit home runs, either. But he came up with one at the right time.
Belliard, one of two Major League regulars in Licey's lineup, had hit just one home run all winter until he opened the scoring in the third inning. After Jose Offerman led off the frame with a single to right-center field, Belliard managed to get enough of a 0-2 pitch from Jose Santiago to loft an opposite-field shot to the left-field power alley.
"I was seeing the ball well, and I thought I made good contact," Belliard said. "The ball just went out of the park. I'm not a home run hitter. Sometimes it's going to happen."
He actually was happier with his follow-up effort. An inning after his home run, Belliard came up with runners on second and third and two outs against Santiago. Again going to the opposite field, he delivered a soft line drive that fell just in front of left fielder Luis Ugueto. It held up long enough to allow both Jose Bautista and Offerman to dash home for a 4-1 lead.
"He was definitely the offensive player of the game," Bautista said of Belliard.
With Major Leaguers such as Miguel Batista, Edgardo Alfonzo and Ronny Cedeno out, Aragua could not afford this kind of deficit to open its fourth Caribbean Series appearance in five years. Its hopes of a strong tournament rested heavily on starting pitcher Santiago, who gave two clutch performances in the Venezuelan finals. Santiago, moreover, was the only Aragua starter left over from its title-winning team.
Santiago, who pitched in the Pacific Coast League last year and signed with the Mets this offseason, retired the first eight batters he faced before Offerman's single and Belliard's homer. Santiago's fourth-inning runs allowed came from three straight two-out singles following a slick double play from shortstop Alberto Callaspo.
Bautista, the other big league regular in the lineup, started the rally with a single before Offerman advanced him. In a move that typified Licey's aggressiveness all evening, manager Hector De La Cruz had both run against Santiago and fill-in catcher Yosnel Garcia, whose regular-season experience with Aragua was limited to three games.
Both bases were swiped without a challenge, marking two of Licey's four steals in the game.
"We're playing as the visitors," Bautista said. "We're ahead, but we needed more. So we went ahead with a double steal, got both runners into scoring position and Ronnie came through for us again.
"Everybody knows in baseball that if the pitcher holds the runner well enough, the catcher's got a chance. But if he doesn't, it's pretty much an easy steal. Their pitcher was very slow to the plate. We acknowledged that early on in the game, and when we saw the situation, we took advantage of it."
Santiago and Licey starter Jose Capellan went five innings each. Just when Licey seemingly had the game in control, however, Aragua rallied off Licey's bullpen once Capellan left. Jose Martinez doubled in a run off Carlos Perez before Garcia beat out a slow roller to second. The ball kicked off Belliard's glove just enough to allow Martinez to score a second run, closing the gap to one.
Back-to-back four-pitch walks from Eddie De La Cruz brought the potential tying run to third, but Juan Cedeno entered to retire Callaspo, much to the approval of a horn-blaring Dominican crowd that was heavily filled with fans of the hometown Aguilas.
Aragua rallied to load the bases one more time in the eighth, this time setting up a showdown with Cubs reliever Carlos Marmol following a two-out walk. Robert Perez nearly made him pay, centering a fastball and sending center fielder Bautista to the warning track before hauling it in.
"I knew it was in the park," said Bautista, who played regularly at third base for Pittsburgh last season. "I just didn't know if it was going to hold up in the air long enough for me to run it down. I'm glad it did. I actually thought it was going to carry a little more, but the wind was shifting all over the place tonight, and I guess at that moment it was blowing in a little. If it was blowing out, like it was in the first two innings, that definitely would've been a huge hit for them."
It would've been the aforementioned miracle. Instead, Licey, the team that got in as the Dominican League runner-up because there was no team from Puerto Rico, picked up an opening win in the park of its rivals from the finals.
"We're here to win," Belliard said. "It's nothing about making a statement or whatever. We're here to win. We won today. We're going to play Mexico [on Sunday], and we'll think about tomorrow. We're not thinking about anything else right now."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.