CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Dominican Republic team that will begin first-round play at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, against Venezuela on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. ET (7:30 local time) -- a game airing on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes -- is loaded with talent. The roster includes seven players who have played in the Major League All-Star Game: Robinson Cano, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Miguel Tejada, Nelson Cruz, Fernando Rodney and Edinson Volquez.
Of course, the 2009 Dominican team in the Classic also had plenty of star power ... and was eliminated in the first round after losing twice to the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Moises Alou, who played 17 seasons in the Major Leagues, is the DR general manager this time around. Tony Pena, going into his fifth season as the Yankees' bench coach, is the manager. Both are committed to making certain a first-round disappointment doesn't happen again.
"We learned a lesson," Alou said before watching his team pound Phillies starter Cole Hamels en route to a 15-2 win in an exhibition game at Bright House Field on Tuesday. "I mean, these guys came to play. It's no coincidence that Nelson Cruz, Hanley Ramirez, Carlos Santana, Erick Aybar -- they all played winter ball this year. These guys played winter ball to be in shape for this. ... If we were in shape [four years ago], we would have [won].
"It was a combination of things. Not being in shape, and the guys, they took it for granted. This is not a story this year. I mean, if we go down, we're going to go down with a purpose. These guys here know what it takes, and they're prepared for this year."
Another player who played this winter was Tejada. In fact, the infielder was so impressive that he was invited to join the team despite sitting out the 2012 season. He went 4-for-6 on Tuesday and said the memory of coming up short in the past will motivate this team.
"I think we all have it in our minds that this game is played nine hard innings," Tejada said. "Not five, not six, and I think that's what everybody has in mind. Especially me. I was there in the first two Classics, and this year, we won't be comfortable. We're going to be playing hard, like we did today. That's not what happened in the past. Right now, we all have it in our mind that we have to play hard. This game is not easy. We learned our lesson. This is not going to be about talent. It's going to be about what we can do as a team."
Added Pena: "I don't know what the problem was [in 2009], because I was not there. But there's one thing about everything. The past is in the past. And that past allows you to live the present, and the present allows you not to make the same mistakes you made in the past. ... Hopefully, everybody concentrates on the things they need to do and just go from there."
There are high expectations from the baseball-obsessed Dominican fans, especially after their team's early exit four years ago.
"I hate to say pressure, but we have to come out of [the first round in] Puerto Rico, you know?" Alou said. "I mean, we're going to. We have to and we're going to, because of what happened last time. This year is going to be tough. We have Puerto Rico having home-field advantage, and Venezuela and us and Spain, but you have three tough teams and only two are going to come out. We have our first game with Venezuela, and they look strong. But I have all the confidence in the world in this team. The Dominican fans, they don't take anything less than going at least to the semis."
If a player from the United States chooses not to participate, some fans shrug. Players from the Dominican who don't play, for whatever reason, don't get off so easily in their own country.
"It's a lot different, and that's one thing I'm very careful with," Alou said. "When I speak to the Dominican media, I say, 'Do not hate those guys.' I never say who told me, 'No, I'm not going to play.' I say his team didn't want him to or I blame the agent. Because there's hate. They're going to hate some guys who don't play for the Dominican team.
"That's something I don't like, because I'm a baseball player myself. There are some situations, or most of the situations, that guys who say they are not playing, I understand. But people over there, they don't understand that."
"You cannot attack anybody," he said. "Everybody has a responsibility. And everybody has to do whatever they think is the best for them. I can't say anything about any players who are not here right now. They have their own reasons for it, and they have to answer that question themselves. We cannot answer that for them."
Alou knew from the beginning that some players coming off injuries (Jose Bautista, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz and Johnny Cueto, to name a few) were unlikely to play. That's why he made several references to playing the hand he's been dealt. But he also pointed out that even this has a bright side.
"I'm sure the fans and the media, they want to see names -- and myself, too," Alou said. "But the good thing about this also is, if this happened to another team, they're in deep trouble. But the Dominican, we've got so much talent that, 'This guy's not coming? Let me call this other guy.' That's been the good thing, the positive thing about the Dominican team. You know where to find players, good players.
"This year, we don't have the big names or the big weapons, but we have the guys who are really committed and in better shape to put up a better performance. I said it when I was named -- I'm not going to hesitate to take a guy from winter ball. So we're taking a different approach this year despite the fact that you have to play the hand you're dealt. I think this is a great team, and we're confident."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.