Wednesday, March 11, 2009 Updated: March 12, 3:15 AM ET
Puerto Rico, Netherlands both win
By Jorge Arangure Jr. ESPN The Magazine
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- When the final out was recorded in Pool D of the World Baseball Classic, and all the players from Puerto Rico had slapped hands with one another in celebration after a 5-0 win against the Netherlands, the final tally of an extraordinary week could be counted: one impressive WBC contender, one miraculous performance and one stunning defeat of a prohibitive favorite.
Perhaps more than any other bracket, Pool D best represented the aim of the World Baseball Classic, to produce a growing parity in the sport around the world and perhaps jump-start the resurgence of a once-powerful baseball-playing country.
In Puerto Rico, the WBC has a complete team capable of making a long run in the tournament and perhaps, with such a run, baseball can prosper once again on this island. In 1998, five Puerto Rican players represented the American League in the All-Star Game. Just 10 years later, there was only one Puerto Rican (Geovany Soto) on either team.
Most importantly, the crowds here were lively, and games the home Puerto Rican team participated in sold out. Baseball could do worse than to have more than just one round in Latin America.
"I think this is a great event for Puerto Rico," Puerto Rico first baseman Carlos Delgado said. "For the last few years, we haven't produced as many players as some of the other Latin countries. As a Puerto Rican, we don't like that. We'd like to see our sport continue to grow."
The Puerto Ricans' postgame on-the-field celebration was tame. No one toppled anyone else. No one dumped water on a teammate. No one ran onto the field as if it were the final game of the World Series. This Puerto Rican team expects a long, glorious run in this tournament.
Puerto Rico's pitching staff, considered the team's weak spot, allowed just one run in three games, though for clarity's sake, all three games were against perhaps the weakest offensive teams in the tournament: Panama and the Netherlands.
Puerto Rico is hoping to restore national pride in baseball during this World Baseball Classic.
"The talk about our team was about batting, batting, batting," Delgado said, "but pitching is what carried us."
Puerto Rico has the daunting task of playing Team USA on Saturday, which should provide a stern test. One could argue that, by avoiding the Dominican, Puerto Rico has yet to be truly tested.
And what to make of the Netherlands? Two stunning wins over the Dominican Republic sends the Dutch into the second round, and perhaps starts a new love affair with baseball in Europe, Curacao and Aruba. But what will happen when the team starts the next round?
"Nothing was easy," Netherlands first baseman Randall Simon said. "The thing is that when you play, you can play good ball and you can beat any team. That is what we did in this tournament. We did the small things to win the game."
The Dutch won with pitching. Their 2.50 team ERA tied with Cuba for fourth in the WBC, and that perhaps gives them a puncher's chance in the next round. Their .151 batting average, though, makes it likely they won't surprise anyone again. The Netherlands has scored just six runs in the entire tournament, and four of those runs were unearned. A fifth run might not have been scored in the game Monday against Puerto Rico had anyone but 40-year-old Bernie Williams been playing left field.
"I'll tell you, things are going to get a little more difficult because the next team that they play, they may have a regular first baseman and a regular third baseman," Dominican manager Felipe Alou said about the Netherlands on Tuesday night. "I sat with them at the Hotel San Juan to have a glass of wine with them, and they said, 'Felipe, we're playing ball, the baseball we've always played without pressure. Because if we lose, everybody expects us to lose.'"
The Netherlands next faces Venezuela, the Pool C winner. Sidney Ponson, who was the Game 1 winner against the Dominican, will start Saturday against Venezuela.
"After the wars we've been through," Netherlands manager Rod Delmonico said, "I don't think I'll worry about who we tee it up against. We need a day to travel and kind of get our legs under us and mentally and physically get healthy. We'll have a good practice on Friday, try to work out some things we didn't do very well [on Wednesday] and then get ready for Saturday."
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.