Venezuela headed to LA; Cuba still alive

Venezuela headed to LA; Cuba alive

Book one trip to Los Angeles for this weekend, and put it under the name Team Venezuela.

The 2009 World Baseball Classic got its first semifinalist Monday night when Venezuela held off Puerto Rico for a 2-0 victory that ensured the baseball-crazy South American nation entry into the Classic semifinals at Dodger Stadium, which begin Saturday.

"Today, we pleased all of Venezuela, for sure," manager Luis Sojo said.

Across the U.S. in San Diego, international baseball's most storied squad averted what would have been its earliest elimination ever in tournament play when Cuba secured a 7-4 victory over Mexico, whose Classic quest ended.

Another team will go also home today as Puerto Rico and Team USA meet in an elimination game in Miami. In San Diego, Japan and Korea meet again. The winner of each of those games also will clinch a trip to Los Angeles for the semifinals.

Venezuela's clincher featured a stellar start from Felix Hernandez, another four-out save from Francisco Rodriguez and a home run from Ramon Hernandez that took about 10 minutes to sort out as the umpires attempted to review instant replay, but were unable to do so.

That marked the second administrative issue of the day, following a translation mistake in the rules that left Cuba without two relievers thought to be available for Monday's elimination game against Mexico.

The disputed home run for Venezuela, it turned out, actually benefited from translation.

When Hernandez struck a ball to left-center field, it appeared to second-base umpire Mark Wegner to have struck the top of the wall, so he signaled that the ball was in play as Hernandez sprinted for third. After conferring on the field, chief Ed Rapuano's crew ducked away into a locker room where they were to have made the first instant replay review in World Baseball Classic history.

But the call was made the old-fashioned way when Rapuano discovered the replay equipment was not functioning and then turned to a conference among his umpiring crew -- using a translator for the two umps from Japan. Third base umpire Hitoshi Watarida had the angle on the play, told Rapuano what he saw and after seven minutes spent off the field, Rapuano came out with the crew and twirled his finger in the air, indicating a home run.

"I saw it go on the wall and come back. I couldn't tell," Rapuano said. "I asked the first base umpire [Masato Tomoyose] if he was 110 percent sure if it was a home run. He said no. I asked the third base umpire if he was 110 percent sure. He said absolutely."

Indeed, television replays, particularly from the left side of the field, appeared to show the ball clearing the teal scoreboard for a homer.

Aside from the replay glitch, it was a perfect finish for Venezuela.

With King Felix striking out seven in what the 23-year-old called "the most exciting day of my life," Rodriguez looking in his single-season saves record form of a year ago, Venezuela punched its ticket to Dodger Stadium for the right to play for the second Classic title. In 2006, Venezuela came within one game of the semifinals before the Dominican Republic stopped its quest, 2-1.

Cuba's quest, meanwhile, continues on its historic track.

A three-run double by Frederich Cepeda put the Cubans ahead for good and reliever Pedro Lazo threw 72 pitches for the save, putting to rest -- for now at least -- any notions that the Cubans would be making any unwanted history on this night.

The day began with some confusion, as Cuba had used Yulieski Gonzalez and Yunieski Maya for 30 pitches each on Sunday under the understanding from a translation card of Classic rules that stopping at 30 would keep them eligible for the next day. However, the rule in fact states that the 30th pitch made each ineligible, and a 15-minute meeting with officials from MLB, the Classic and the Cuban delegation confirmed that the two pitchers would not be able to play Monday.

"We resolved it largely on the strength of Cuban understanding," said MLB Players Association executive Gene Orza, one of the officials in the decision-making process. "In a sense, they were wrong but they were gracious to understand how we got where we got."

Having emerged from that possible disaster, Cuba still has another elimination game to play, meeting the loser of today Japan-Korea game on Wednesday. Japan and Korea will be meeting for the third time in the tournament, with Japan winning the first meeting 14-2 and Korea taking Pool A with a 1-0 victory in Tokyo.

If the Cubans stave off that one, they will still have a shot to continue their mastery of international play -- having won 33 of its last 40 tournaments and never once finishing lower than third since 1932.

The elimination game du jour tonight will feature none other than the U.S. squad -- still reeling from a rash of injuries -- meeting Puerto Rico, still stinging from the loss to Veneuzuela, but ready for the challenge.

"We're going to play against a U.S. team that's a great team," said Carlos Beltran, who doubled and walked three times Monday.

"It's practically an All-Star team. We're going to out on the ball field and try to score early. Any time you score early as a team, the team gets its confidence. ... We're pros. You win some games, you lose some games throughout the season, and we lost today."

One more loss for either the U.S. or Puerto Rico, and there is no tomorrow in the Classic.

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