SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The sleeping giant woke up on Sunday afternoon, though it was far too little, too late.
Thought to be one of the stronger teams in the entire World Baseball Classic, Venezuela lost two straight to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico to get eliminated from the tournament. The powerhouse lineup sleep-walked through the first three innings of Sunday's finale against Spain, then suddenly remembered how good it could be with a six-run fourth inning en route to a 11-6 victory.
The game wasn't as meaningful as many thought or hoped it might be. A place in the second round for Venezuela wasn't up for grabs. There was, however, national pride and a potential invite to the next edition of the World Baseball Classic at stake. Teams that don't win a game would have to go through qualifying to come back. Spain will have to go that route again, having qualified to reach Pool C play here this weekend. Venezuela is saved from the embarrassment of being swept and having to qualify for 2017 despite typically having a Major League-laden roster.
"It's not a secret things did not work out well," Venezuelan outfielder Carlos Gonzalez said. "We didn't hit, we didn't pitch well, we didn't play defense in the first game against the Dominican Republic. A lot of players think that's why today we are packing up and going back home, and it's disappointing for us, for the fans. We have to keep moving forward and think about the future."
"We were almost one of the last teams to qualify for the Classic, and it's the first time we're in such an important tournament," Spain manager Mauro Mazzotti said. "I believe that we can play at the level of those teams. I believe that we had a good run here, and we may have to go back to the qualifier round to be able to play here again, but we know what we're seeing now."
Spain entered Sunday showing it could compete with the rest of the pool, but nothing to show for it in the win column. When it jumped all over Venezuelan starter Ramon Ramirez in the first inning, it looked like it might come up with Classic victory No. 1. After Paco Figueroa's one-out single, Yunesky Sanchez doubled him home. The Cuban-born shortstop was the best performer for the Spanish squad, going 7-for-11 in the three games combined. Barbaro Canizares followed up Sanchez's double with a two-run homer to give Spain its first lead at 3-0 before Venezuela came to bat. It was just the third home run in Pool C play at the time.
Spain starter Richard Castillo allowed runners to reach scoring position in each of his three innings of work, but each time the Cardinals' Minor Leaguer pitched out of it. His completion of the third inning will likely be one that sticks with him for a while. After yielding back-to-back one-out singles to Omar Infante and Asdrubal Cabrera, Castillo struck out Miguel Cabrera and Pablo Sandoval to end the threat and keep the score at 3-0.
Lest anyone think Venezuela was going to mail it in for the remainder of the game, it sent 11 men to the plate in the fourth, pounding out seven hits in the process. Gonzalez had two hits in the inning, Infante doubled for his third hit of the game and pinch-hitter Elvis Andrus drove in a pair to give Venezuela its first lead of the game.
"We are professionals, and every time we have a uniform on, we're going to go out to try to win," Gonzalez said. "That is our goal. We knew that today's game didn't mean anything; we weren't going to the next round. But we played to win.
"We were losing 3- 0 early in the game, but we knew we would respond. That's how we thought in the first two games, it didn't happen, so we didn't get to where we wanted. "
Spain wasn't about ready to give up its quest for a win, though, scoring two in the fifth on a single by Salomon Manriquez that brought home Daniel Figueroa and Sanchez. But Venezuela tacked on five more runs -- two in the sixth and three in the eighth -- with two in the eighth coming on somewhat ironic exclamation points in the form of back-to-back homers from Cabrera, who went 3-for-5 with three RBIs, and Sandoval.
"You know that when you come here, you want to set a minimum goal and a maximum goal," Mazzotti said. "A minimum goal was to be able to compete with these people, not to get here and have three blowouts and go home, kind of without really playing. We showed that we can play with these people. The other objective was to win games. We almost did it, a half-game, but realistically, well, they're stronger than us."