MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – This is what the World Baseball Classic should be. A slow-dance-close game in the eighth inning. Jersey-clad fans going hoarse when the tournament's best closer enters the game. Some yelling for him, others for his demise. All rather confused because he arrives in the middle of an at-bat. And all marveling, too, at a pair of changeups that flutter like a hummingbird and end the inning.
Francisco Rodriguez surged off the mound and into the arms of his Venezuelan teammates. He cared. Heavens, did he care, and not nearly as much about the situation's unorthodoxy – his manager, Luis Sojo, yanked Ramon Ramirez off the mound with two balls, a strike and two runners on so K-Rod could do what K-Rod does – as its endgame: a flailing Jose Lopez, two orphaned runners and eventually a 2-0 victory over Puerto Rico that sends Venezuela to the WBC semifinals in Los Angeles and sets up a win-or-go-home game Tuesday between the Puerto Ricans and the Americans they mercy-ruled Saturday.
There were no injuries, no false bravado, no indifference in the stands, no mismanagement, no general chicanery – none of the undesirable detritus that has bogged down the games involving Team USA, and the WBC by proxy. It's almost as though the tournament prospers without the Americans.
So enough about them, because the game put on by the Venezuelans and Puerto Ricans at Dolphin Stadium was a beaut, from the first hit that showed the crowd's allegiance – a good 80 percent of the 25,599 were pro-Venezuela – to the last out, a weak ground ball off a K-Rod fastball.
For the second time in three days, he recorded a four-out save. His last one came in 2007, before he set the single-season save record with 62 and signed a $37 million contract with the New York Mets.
"Nobody wants to face K-Rod," Venezuela outfielder Carlos Guillen said. "Especially in that situation when you're down by two runs, because everybody knows in the whole world who is K-Rod."
Not who so much as what: a dominator – though usually for three outs. Last year, the Los Angeles Angels babied him en route to his record-breaking 62-save season. None stretched beyond one inning. On Saturday, Rodriguez notched his first four-out save since July 1, 2007, and two days later he came back with an even odder one.
He threw his requisite 12 warm-up pitches while Ramirez worked himself into a jam. When the bullpen signaled that K-Rod was ready, Sojo didn't hesitate to summon him.
"If I was a manager, I would've brought him in, too," said Puerto Rico outfielder Carlos Beltran, now a Mets teammate of Rodriguez. "I want that guy there. I wasn't surprised at all."
"A little bit," he said. "I'm not gonna lie to you. Yeah. As soon as I told the bullpen coach I was ready … "
In he went, to save Felix Hernandez's game. For more than a week, the anxiety-ridden in Venezuela lamented Sojo's use of Hernandez as a four-inning relief pitcher in the team's first game. They hadn't seen him since.
"That's the man the whole of Venezuela wanted on the mound," Sojo said.
Understandably. No one in baseball can dazzle with quite the array of pitches that Hernandez can, the unfair 94-mph fastball with late cut and the unfairer curveball that's heavy like a shotput and the unfairest slider with such deep tilt and late break that of the 449 he threw last season, only 16 went for hits.
Though Hernandez wasn't at his sharpest, he went 4 2/3 shutout innings before hitting the 85-pitch limit. He gave up four hits and four walks, struck out seven and ceded to Carlos Vasquez, a career minor leaguer who struck out Carlos Delgado and prompted King Felix to charge out of the dugouts with a pair of claps, amplifying a juiced crowd even more.
"Today," the 22-year-old Hernandez said, "was the most exciting day of my life."
And why wouldn't it be? The Venezuelan fans behaved during Magglio Ordonez's at-bats after serenading him with boos during the pool's first game for his support of Hugo Chavez, the country's socialist president. Instead of chanting "Chavista," a derogatory term for a Chavez loyalist, a pro-Ordonez pocket instead tried to start another: "Magg-li-o, Magg-li-o, Magg-li-o." No one shouted it down.
"They just had more crazy Venezuelans out here," Puerto Rico starter Ian Snell said.
They banded together, the 20,000 or so Venezuela supporters, for their team and their country. They huzzahed when Hernandez matched Snell's three strikeouts in the first inning, and they lauded Guillen's RBI single for a 1-0 lead, and they saved up the rest of their energy during an eight-minute delay to determine whether catcher Ramon Hernandez had actually hit a home run.
The ball was clearly over the left-field fence, and even though the instant-replay machine was broken – can't $75 million in revenue sharing at least buy the Marlins a working replay device? – the umpires got the call right. Ed Rapuano waved his finger around to signal the home run, Hernandez finished the longest trot of his career and the fans rose with approval.
They stood, too, in the ninth inning, as K-Rod mowed through Puerto Rico's lineup. He celebrated in his outlandish fashion, and so did everyone else, because after the embarrassment of not even making the semifinals in the 2006 WBC, they had plumbed their energy to rescue their pride.
The WBC can succeed, and that was apparent from the voices, the claps, the cheers, the cries and the thank yous, all delivered by a people to whom this tournament really matters. Forget K-Rod's changeups and marvel at that: the WBC redeemed, for a night at least.
- Puerto Rico