The Dominican Republic slugged its way through two exhibition games against Major League clubs earlier this week, then kept right on going on Thursday night as it opened Pool C play in the World Baseball Classic against Venezuela.
The Dominicans jumped on Venezuela starter Anibal Sanchez for three quick runs and maintained the pressure after a 50-minute rain delay, surging to a 9-3 victory in front of 15,069 fans at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. By winning a wild game that lasted more than four hours and featured 15 pitchers, the Dominican Republic grabbed control of its pool, which also includes Puerto Rico and Spain.
"Well, I'm surprised definitely [with the offense], but I believe these guys are on a mission," D.R. manager Tony Pena said. "They're on a mission. They do not want to waste a single moment."
Robinson Cano notched three hits and three RBIs, Jose Reyes added four hits and Hanley Ramirez contributed a massive home run for the Dominican Republic, which improved to 3-0 all time against Venezuela in Classic play.
"Right now our mood is good, knowing that this is like a playoff," said Cano. "I mean, you have to win two games out of three, and the important thing is to win the first one. We celebrated today, but we know that we have a second game on Saturday."
The Venezuelans -- wearing black armbands on their jerseys to honor late president Hugo Chavez, who died Tuesday -- observed a moment of silence before taking the field. They struggled all night to contain the Dominican Republic, although manager Luis Sojo said the political situation back home had no effect.
"We know we have problems in our country, but the focus should be baseball," he said. "I let [the players] know, and they are aware of that. I mean, we have to turn the page."
Stacked Dominican teams fell short of a championship in the previous two Classics, including a first-round exit in 2009, but this squad is on an early roll. Exhibition tilts against the Phillies and Yankees saw the D.R. pound out 23 runs on 41 hits, and it wasted no time carrying that over into Thursday.
After Edinson Volquez set Venezuela down in order to start the game, Reyes singled and Erick Aybar reached when Sanchez threw wildly to first on his sacrifice bunt. Cano followed by shooting a two-run double down the left-field line, and three batters later, Nelson Cruz lined an RBI single to left to give the Dominicans a 3-0 lead.
Heavy rain stopped play with one out and the bases loaded, and by the time the game resumed, both starting pitchers were gone. That forced Pena to revise his plan.
"We want to win, but the last thing that we want is to hurt any of those guys," Pena said of his decision to remove Volquez, a Padres right-hander. "It's their career, and because of that I made the decision of not sending him back. Volquez wanted to go back, but I'm not going to put his career in jeopardy."
Venezuela escaped the first without further damage, but the Dominican Republic struck for two more runs in the second, as Cano blooped an RBI double over third base and Edwin Encarnacion hit a sacrifice fly. Venezuela fought back with two in the third on Pablo Sandoval's double and another in the fourth, when Martin Prado doubled and eventually scored on a wild pitch.
But the Dominicans' bullpen preserved the lead, stranding nine runners between the second and fifth innings. Octavio Dotel, one of eight D.R. relievers, secured one of the most crucial outs, inducing a harmless fly ball from Sandoval with the bases loaded in the fourth.
Dotel teamed with winning pitcher Pedro Strop, Lorenzo Barcelo, Santiago Casilla and Fernando Rodney to hurl 5 2/3 scoreless innings to end the contest.
"There is no easy game," Pena said. "We've scored runs before, and when we thought that maybe the Venezuelan team was going to stop battling, they kept on. They kept on and they kept on, because it is a team that has a lot of power. But the thing is that after we had a lead in our hands, we said we're going to die with our best pitchers."
Those pitchers executed the difficult task of containing reigning American League Most Valuable Player Miguel Cabrera, who went 0-for-4 with a walk and a strikeout after homering three times in two exhibition games.
"Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter," Pena said. "We won't let him beat us. Simple."
The D.R.'s lead widened to 6-3 in the fifth on Ramirez's drive way up the bleachers in left field. It broke the game wide open with a three-run seventh, the big blow coming on Alejandro De Aza's two-run double with the bases loaded.
That left Venezuela to regroup as it tries to secure one of the pool's two second-round berths. It will face Puerto Rico on Saturday and Spain on Sunday, the reverse of the D.R.'s upcoming schedule.
"Right now we have a big challenge," Sojo said. "We have to win to go on to the next round and we're going to know what we're made of. We have a lot of talent. We cannot get down. We've got to give credit to the Dominican Republic; they played better than us, and that's why they had the victory."
Andrew Simon is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.