Salvy, López put Venezuela in driver’s seat of dangerous Pool D

March 13th, 2023

MIAMI – Led by a team full of stars, the Dominican Republic came into Pool D as the clear favorites to win the “Pool of Death” and one of the top choices to win this year’s World Baseball Classic. 

Because of their experience, the Puerto Rican team also came into the tournament with high expectations. Puerto Rico is trying to get over the hump and win its first Classic after finishing as the runner-up in 2013 and ‘17.

That left Venezuela, a team that has as much talent – if not more – as any team in this tournament, somehow flying under the radar. But after a dominant win in its opener against the Dominican Republic and a similarly impressive 9-6 win over Puerto Rico on Sunday at loanDepot park, Venezuela has established itself as one of the teams to beat, and they’ve done it in emphatic fashion.

“When the group was unveiled, not many people talked about Venezuela,” said manager Omar Lopez. “They wouldn’t talk about us even in our home country. People criticized us, but that just filled me and us with even more desire to give 100 percent to this.”

Before the first pitch, the roar of the crowd seemingly increased after every Puerto Rican player was announced. Puerto Rican fans slightly outnumbered the Venezuelans in one of the best atmospheres the tournament has to offer.

Over the next few hours, however, the Venezuelan offense made sure that loanDepot served as the stage to a massive Venezuelan party.

Salvador Perez, who went 4-for-4 and finished a triple shy of the cycle, opened the scoring with an RBI single in the first inning off Puerto Rican right-hander José Berríos. On the next pitch, Anthony Santander, who was one of the heroes on Saturday, continued his hot start to the tournament, launching a Berríos slurve for a three-run homer to give Venezuela a 4-0 lead just five batters into the game.

In the second inning, Perez joined the homer party, smacking a no-doubt three-run homer off Fernando Cruz, who relieved Berríos after he was unable to get an out in the second inning. Perez’s four hits tied him for second most in a game in WBC history behind only countrymate Martin Prado, who had five hits in ‘17.

The last two meetings in the 2017 WBC between these two teams resulted in domination by the Puerto Rican side. The Caribbean island outscored Venezuela, 24-2, in those contests. But on Sunday, Perez and the entire Venezuelan offense attacked all night long and exacted some payback on their international rival.

That early offensive explosion by Venezuela was enough to help withstand a late run from Puerto Rico that included a four-run sixth inning. Pablo López also played a big role in Venezuela’s win, allowing one run over 4 2/3 innings of work. Aside from a solo homer to Eddie Rosario in the bottom of the second inning, López dominated the Puerto Rican offense, allowing just two hits and no real threats. López exited to a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd in Miami.

“Physically I felt really good and I was anxious for the start of the game, but in a good way,” Pablo López said in Spanish. “I knew what wearing this uniform represents, so being here in this opportunity made me really proud.” 

With wins over the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, Venezuela is now in the driver’s seat in the toughest group of the tournament. It’s the first 2-0 start in Pool Play for the vinotinto in its history. 

For Venezuela, the difference between this year and previous tournaments is the commitment each player made for his country. Omar Lopez said the roster came together through plenty of conversations with captain Miguel Cabrera, who is wearing the Venezuelan uniform in a WBC for the last time in his career.

Once Omar Lopez and Cabrera set the pool of players, the Venezuelan skipper assigned his coaches to certain players to keep them updated on how they were getting physically ready for this tournament. Given that Spring Training is still ongoing, Lopez required his players to be at about an 85 percent buildup before the start of the tournament. That would allow them to be at 100 percent for Opening Day, while also giving Venezuela a chance to win this tournament. 

Players who didn’t meet those requirements or stay in constant communication weren’t going to be considered for this team. It’s a level of commitment that Venezuela has lacked in previous tournaments. It’s there now, and they’ve taken the WBC by storm.

“We feel really good, we’re calm and we’re staying humble. That was the message to the guys in the clubhouse,” Omar Lopez said. “Tomorrow we have an off-day and we’ll prepare for Nicaragua. But the guys are very committed and want to be successful.” 

For Puerto Rico, the loss pushes them to 1-1 in Pool D, and they will face Israel on Monday night at 7 p.m. ET on FS1. That's a huge game for Puerto Rico ahead of a much-anticipated meeting against the D.R. set for Wednesday night.