Inexperienced pitchers a challenge for Puerto Rico
MIAMI -- At the age of 36, and after a year away from the game to spend time with his kids in Puerto Rico, Javier Vazquez was hoping to use the World Baseball Classic to showcase himself to Major League teams in search of a starting pitcher.
He whet the appetite with a brief appearance in the Puerto Rican Winter League, where his fastball ranged from 91-94 mph, but he sustained a torn meniscus in his right knee in January. When he didn't bounce back from surgery in the two to three weeks that doctors predicted, Vazquez had to withdraw from the Puerto Rico roster.
His hopes to return to the game ended. The interest of at least 10 teams, including the Rangers, Yankees, Phillies, Rays and Nationals, was diminished. And the hope of his native Puerto Rico to pull off a coup in the Classic was hit hard.
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Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez offered positive words for the inexperienced staff he is overseeing in the World Baseball Classic in the aftermath of a 7-1 loss to Team USA on the opening day of the second round at Marlins Park on Tuesday night.
The reality, however, is that Puerto Rico has a pitching staff that is facing a level of competition that is a challenge for proven pitchers, much less the virtual unknowns from Puerto Rico. Shutting out Spain, 3-0, in the first round is one thing. Trying to shut down a Team USA with seven All-Stars among the nine-man lineup is quite another.
"Well, it is tough," said Rodriguez. "... Playing against the USA, we faced a pretty good lineup. You have to give that lineup credit."
Think about it.
Puerto Rico has produced some big bats, including Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar, Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Clemente.
It, however, has not been much of a factor in the baseball arms race.
Vazquez won 165 big league games, the most of any of the 64 Puerto Rican born pitchers to appear in the Major Leagues, and one of only four Puerto Ricans with at least 100 wins. Juan Pizarro won 131, Jamie Navarro 116 and Joel Pineiro won 104.
So what does that leave Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic?
It leaves Mario Santiago, who started for Puerto Rico against Team USA and allowed three runs in 4 1/3 innings. He had a six-year Minor League career with a 4.59 ERA before heading to South Korea to pitch in 2012.
Giancarlo Alvarado will start Wednesday's elimination game against Italy. He spent the last three years pitching in Japan.
And if Puerto Rico wins that game, it will turn in Game 3 to its most experienced pitcher, Nelson Figueroa. He is 20-35 with a 4.55 ERA in 145 big league games, 65 of which were starts, in a career spread over nine seasons and spent with seven teams.
Among the six relievers that Puerto Rico used against Team USA were Jose Berrios, an 18-year-old whose pro experience consists of 11 games at the rookie level last summer in the Minnesota system, and Randy Fontanez, who in two years in the Mets system has 41 games of experience, one of which came above the low Class A level.
Only four of the members of the Puerto Rican pitching staff have even pitched in the big leagues - Figueroa, Fernando Cabrera, J.C. Romero and Xavier Cedeno. And Cedeno's resume consists of 12 games, a 0-1 record and 4.96 ERA over two years.
By contrast, to open the second round of the World Baseball Classic against Puerto Rico, Team USA skipper Joe Torre turned to Gio Gonzalez, a 21-game winner for National League East-champion Washington in 2012, who finished third in the NL Cy Young Award voting and is a two-time All-Star selection. He allowed just three hits and struck out five in five innings.
In the winner's-bracket game on Thursday against the Dominican Republic, Torre will hand the ball to R.A. Dickey, who won the NL Cy Young Award with the Mets last season, parlaying his knuckleball into a 20-win season for a team that won only 74 games.
And then there is that Team USA lineup, anchored by Mets third baseman David Wright, who drove in five runs on Tuesday and now has 10 RBIs in the first four Classic games. His three-run double off Cedeno in the eighth inning blew the game open.
"The pitch to David Wright was a heckuva pitch from Xavier Cedeno," said Rodriguez. "If he throws that nine of 10 times, he's going to get people out. You have to give David Wright credit."
Wright, who had a grand slam against Italy on Saturday in the opening round, also picked up an RBI on a bases-loaded fielder's choice in the third and singled home the run that gave Team USA a 3-0 lead in the fifth.
Team USA, however, is now in the rear-view mirror.
Puerto Rico is looking ahead to Wednesday's game against an Italy team that pulled off the upsets in the first round of Canada and Mexico, but lost its second-round opener on Tuesday afternoon when it saw a 4-0 lead turn into a 5-4 loss to the Dominican Republic.
"We have a life-or-death game with Italy," said Rodriguez. "In this tournament, every game is very important. If you go inside that clubhouse, everybody is up. They are talking about [the game with Italy].
"From Day 1, when we started working out in Fort Myers, [Fla.], we established our philosophy of, 'One day at a time.' We lost [to Team USA]. We turn the page."
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.