Puerto Rico faces stiff competition in the first round of the World Baseball Classic, sharing Pool C with two Latin American powerhouses, in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
If the squad is going to fight its way into the tournament's second round for the third straight time, taking advantage of the home field at San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium will be essential. That challenge begins Friday, when Puerto Rico opens Classic play against Spain at 5:30 p.m. ET live on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes.
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"I don't think we feel any pressure," outfielder Alex Rios said of playing on home turf. "We're going to be very excited. It'll be a huge adrenaline rush. I believe that the thing here is to know how to manage [emotions].
"I believe that's one part that is the most difficult to achieve, trying to quiet your emotions, because it's exciting. When you're playing with the Puerto Rican uniform on and in front of your family, friends and all the fans from Puerto Rico, it's something that makes us very proud."
Before taking on the pool's two favorites, Puerto Rico will have to deal with underdog Spain, which is making its first Classic appearance. The club, which has few players affiliated with Major League organizations, slipped past France, South Africa and Israel in September's qualifier in Jupiter, Fla., to make it to San Juan.
Manager Mauro Mazzotti pointed out that the Netherlands beat the Dominican Republic twice in the first round of the 2009 Classic, suggesting that Spain shouldn't be underestimated. Friday's starting pitcher, Sergio Perez, echoed that sentiment.
"We know the names and the strong teams, but I believe that no player will go out to the field just to lose," Perez said. "I mean, we're going to do everything we can to win and be able to play good baseball and win the game. We're not here just to play and see the experience."
Perez, a 28-year-old right-hander, was the Astros' second-round pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft out of the University of Tampa. Last season, his seventh in the organization, he went 4-2 with a 4.54 ERA in 75 1/3 innings for Triple-A Oklahoma City.
He will oppose Puerto Rico right-hander Giancarlo Alvarado, a 35-year-old journeyman whose career has included Minor League time with six organizations, as well as stints in independent leagues, the Mexican League and the Japanese Central League. Last year he went 1-6 with a 3.92 ERA in eight outings for the Yokohama Bay Stars.
Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez, a former Marlins skipper, is hoping for three solid innings from Alvarado before turning the ball over to righty Hiram Burgos, a rookie with the Brewers.
"[Alvarado] has the repertoire, change of speed, very good fastball, to face the Spain lineup," Rodriguez said.
While Puerto Rico split a pair of one-run exhibition games with big league teams, Spain dropped contests against the Pirates and Orioles by a combined 29-7. Still, the host squad will try not to look ahead to coming matchups with Venezuela (Saturday) and the Dominican Republic (Sunday).
"It's a team that has experience as professionals, and we have to take them seriously," Rodriguez said of Spain. "They know how to play baseball really good, and they have a good sense of the game."
Spain can't match Puerto Rico in terms of big names. It has nobody with the stature of Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina, Angel Pagan or Rios.
Mazzotti and his staff had to search far and wide to fill out a roster with players who met the Classic's eligibility requirements, although most are not actually from Spain. Perez, for example, was born in Florida, but takes pride in suiting up for Spain.
"You know, the way I think about Spain's baseball is that everybody, all the Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, we all came from Spain," he said. "We have Latin blood, and like everything, baseball is very popular in Spain and for all Latinos, and we're glad to place it a little bit on the map. We're going to be there representing, and we're showing that we have Spaniards that play baseball."
Andrew Simon is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.