SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- When the World Baseball Classic was created, it's likely Major League Baseball had Saturday night's Puerto Rico-Venezuela game in mind.
A packed house of 18,741 at Hiram Bithorn Stadium was charged from the outset, cheering, chanting and buzzing from the first pitch to final out as Puerto Rico beat Venezuela, 6-3.
The win guaranteed spots in Round 2 for both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, which beat Spain, 6-3, earlier on Saturday. Venezuela and Spain, both 0-2, were officially eliminated, and Puerto Rico advanced for the third straight World Baseball Classic.
"I think Venezuela has a great team, and obviously their roster is basically all big leaguers," Puerto Rico's Carlos Beltran said. "But we are not surprised with the victory. Maybe some of fans were because they think baseball is characterized by the roster, and it's really not so. Baseball is characterized when you go out onto the baseball field. The best one that plays wins, and we did a great job."
For Venezuela, a team many felt would advance with the Dominicans from this Pool C, the end result can be seen as nothing less than a bitter disappointment.
"It's extremely disappointing," Venezuelan manager Luis Sojo said. "This was not in the plan. But the reality is we're out of the tournament. This is the most painful [World Baseball Classic experience]. I thought we had a great ballclub. Venezuela is demanding some triumph. Unfortunately, things didn't come out as we wanted, but we have to move forward."
The victory renders Sunday's games without much on the line, though the second contest between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic will determine seeding for the two clubs in Miami's second round. The runner-up from Pool C will open against the Pool D winner coming from Arizona.
Both starters were crisp at the outset. Puerto Rico's Nelson Figueroa allowed just one hit, to Miguel Cabrera, over the first two innings. Carlos Zambrano went three perfect frames to open things for Venezuela, while the Venezuelan offense got to Figueroa in the bottom of the third.
Omar Infante got it started with a one-out double, coming around to score on a Marco Scutaro single. After Asdrubal Cabrera was hit by a pitch, Figueroa actually got Miguel Cabrera to pop out to short, but then allowed a double to Pablo Sandoval. That allowed Scutaro to score, but Cabrera was thrown out at third to end the inning.
In the fourth, Zambrano unraveled. Angel Pagan led off the inning with a double, Puerto Rico's first baserunner, but he was erased when first baseman Miguel Cabrera nabbed Irving Falu's grounder, catching Pagan in a rundown at third. Alex Rios walked, and when Zambrano uncorked a wild pitch, both runners advanced. Beltran wasn't able to take advantage, tapping out to third, but not before Zambrano got steamed after a very close pitch that umpire Ed Hickox felt missed the plate.
When Yadier Molina worked out a walk, Zambrano had reached his pitch limit. Enrique Gonzalez came in and gave up a two-run single to Mike Aviles, which knotted the score at 2, but the threat ended when Molina was thrown out at third.
Figueroa bounced back to put a zero on the board in the fourth, ending his night. Puerto Rico thanked him with a go-ahead run in the fifth when Pagan, who went 3-for-5, singled home Martin Maldonado to give Puerto Rico a 3-2 lead.
Puerto Rico tacked on insurance runs in the eighth. Aviles drove in his third run of the game with a sacrifice fly that brought home Rios. Then with two outs, Hiram Bithorn erupted when pinch-hitter Luis Figueroa drove Francisco Rodriguez's offering into the right-field corner to plate two.
"This moment is very, very special to me," said Figueroa, a 39-year-old, 16-year professional, who last saw big league time with the Giants in 2007. "At my age, not everybody has this opportunity. It's the best moment of my career."
That was not lost on his teammates, who jumped out of the dugout to congratulate the man everyone calls "Wicho," for the hit that cemented Puerto Rico's place in the next round.
"I believe that the most important moment today was the moment [of] Wicho's double to right field," Beltran said. "It's going to be his biggest hit in his career as a ballplayer. We came out onto the field to congratulate him, and we were very happy with this victory, but we were happy for him because he's a ballplayer who has struggled a lot in his career."
Every pitch, every play, every out had the capacity crowd -- not to mention the players -- on the edge of its collective seat. Venezuela's Carlos Gonzalez slammed his helmet down in disgust when he was called out on a very close play in the sixth with one out and a runner on first. Sojo came out to argue, to no avail, and Puerto Rican lefty Giovanni Soto calmly got Salvador Perez to bounced out to second to end the inning. Soto was terrific in relief of Nelson Figueroa, tossing three hitless innings, walking two and striking out two.
"Giovanni Soto's job, that guy, he impresses me," Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "The lineup that he faced, the best hitters not only in the Classic, the best hitters in baseball, and he held on and he kept the lead. Giovanni Soto's relief was key."
The crowd roared in the seventh when Rios made a sliding catch on the right-field line after a long run on Infante's fly ball for the second out of the inning with a runner aboard, and it was whipped into a frenzy when Eddie Rosario ran down Scutaro's drive to deep left to end the inning. The frenzy continued until the final out, sealing Puerto Rico's trip to Miami.
"I think that baseball in Puerto Rico compared to maybe 10 years ago is now in a crisis, so to speak, of amount of players, not quality, quantity," Rodriguez said. "But I believe that this kind of tournament, this kind of Classic motivates players, and these two gentlemen [Beltran and Pagan] that I have here with me know the commitment. They know what it means not only for baseball but for the Puerto Rican society. And I believe that this kind of Classic gives a chance and gives a window for guys like this to contribute positively to society and that young generation that is growing. "