ISLA DE MARGARITA, Venezuela -- Five flags, four islands, 12 games in seven days, and now it's time for the big one.
Puerto Rico's Indios de Mayaguez defeated Venezuela's Navigantes del Magallanes, 2-0, on Friday and will now face Mexico's Naranjeros de Hermosillo in the Caribbean Series final Saturday night at Stadium Nueva Esparta.
"To win a game against such a great Venezuelan team in their home park is not easy," Puerto Rico manager Carlos Baerga said. "It was a tremendous game. If we play defense and pitch the way we are capable, we can win the Series."
Saturday's matchup pits the tournament's newest powerhouse against an island looking for its first title in more than a decade.
"We feel good but we can't be overconfident," Baerga said. "Mexico has good pitching and good hitters. We just have to come on strong and be ready. That's going to be my message for my team. We have to rest, concentrate and try to bring a victory back to Puerto Rico."
A victory for Puerto Rico has been years in the making. The island has the second-most number of championships, with 14, but it has not won since 2000 when the Cangrejeros de Santurce won the title. By contrast, a team from Mexico has won the Caribbean Series twice in the past three years, including last year in Hermosillo, Mexico.
Mexico also has four titles in the past 11 years. It wants another one.
"We are going to continue with the same approach. Keep fighting and try to win the Series," Mexico manager Matias Carrillo said. "We are where we wanted to be. It doesn't matter who we play. We know everybody is good."
In the end, Venezuela finished the tournament with a 3-2 record and the Dominican Republic's Tigres de Licey returned home with a 2-3 mark. Cuba, participating in the Caribbean Series for the first time since 1960, finished with a record of 1-3. For its part, Puerto Rico defeated the Dominican Republic and Venezuela twice to advance to the final.
The underdog Puerto Rican club celebrated on the field and in the clubhouse after the final out. The Venezuelan club was left to ponder what went wrong.
And there was plenty to think about in this one.
The game was scoreless for seven innings, but all that changed in the eighth when Puerto Rico capitalized on a pair of misplays at shortstop by Twins infielder Eduardo Escobar to gain an advantage. The first miscue came when Escobar booted a ground ball by Puerto Rico's Osvaldo Martinez to load the bases with two outs. The next batter, Eddie Rosario, followed with a bloop single that eluded Escobar in shallow left field to score the two runs that decided the game.
"We just didn't play defense when we needed to play it," Venezuela manager Carlos Garcia said. "The pitching was not the problem. The defense was. We made mistakes and it cost us two runs. You can't give a team five outs in one inning and not feel the pressure."
It's been quite a run for the Mexican team.
Last Saturday, Orioles pitcher Alfredo Aceves pitched seven strong innings to lead Mexico to a 9-4 victory over Cuba. Mexico also defeated Puerto Rico, 6-3, on Sunday but lost to Venezuela the following day and to the Dominican Republic on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Aceves was charged with two runs on three hits in seven innings in Mexico's 3-2 victory against the Dominican Republic to advance to the final.
Overall, Mexico is 19-17 in its past 36 Caribbean Series games. That's quite an improvement from its 61-114 record at the tournament from 1971-99. The country is 100-162 in 44 Caribbean Series appearances.
"We are going to give it a shot," Mexico center fielder Chris Roberson said. "If we can play clean baseball and we get our runs when we are supposed to, we are going to be fine. I know this team won't quit."