TORONTO – Venezuela succeeded in putting down the Burger King rebellion, an in-house uprising. Now, it must deal with Roy Oswalt and Team USA.
Faced with losing many of its top players over complaints about shoddy treatment three years ago during the inaugural World Baseball Classic – not enough hotel rooms, tickets for players' families, and at least one instance in which players had to make do with Whoppers as their postgame meal – the Venezuelan Baseball Federation promised changes, enough to appease the most outspoken players, most notably Carlos Guillen of the Tigers.
Guillen not only relented and decided to play, but also he hit a home run in Venezuela's opening 7-0 win over Italy on Saturday night, which puts Los Venezolanos in a winner's bracket matchup Sunday night with Team USA. The winner advances into the second round; the loser will face the winner of Monday night's matchup between first-game losers Canada and Italy.
"I don't like to talk about the past,'' said Venezuelan manager Luis Sojo, a former Yankee infielder and coach. "But we didn't prepare ourselves last time, and I think a lot of guys took it personally.''
What Sojo didn't mention was that his own return as manager was in question as late as last summer, when there were reports he would be replaced. Venezuela was bounced from the 2006 tournament in a 2-1 second-round loss to the Dominican Republic, the deciding run scoring on a passed ball charged to catcher Ramon Hernandez. Venezuela was held to one hit in the game and batted just .186 in the tournament, with stars Bobby Abreu and Miguel Cabrera held hitless in their last 24 combined at-bats.
Sojo became a lightning rod for criticism, though Guillen spoke up in support of the manager.
(Venezuela isn't the only WBC team with internal squabbling: Dominican general manager Stan Javier told reporters this weekend he's tired of the shots he's taken back home and won't return as GM.)
Venezuela was held scoreless in the first four innings Saturday night by Italy, due in part to a spectacular catch by Italy right fielder Mario Chiarini, who took away extra bases from Abreu despite suffering an equipment malfunction: Chiarini's belt broke on impact as he dived for the ball. No FCC sanctions will be required – his pants stayed up while he trotted to the dugout, grinning broadly, for a new belt.
Guillen broke the scoreless tie in the fifth inning with a leadoff home run off Jason Grilli, the Colorado Rockies' reliever. Melvin Mora later homered and Venezuela finished with 11 hits, six for extra bases. With a lineup that features a big leaguer at every position, and Armando Galarraga – a 13-game winner as a Tigers rookie last season – on the mound, Venezuela should represent itself well against the USA.
Curiously, Sojo burned two starters, Carlos Silva and Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners, in Saturday's game, Silva pitching the first four innings, Hernandez coming in from the bullpen and pitching the next four.
Sojo said he had no choice.
"Carlos Silva had gone nine days without throwing,'' Sojo said, "and the Mariners told us Felix was supposed to throw on Saturday.''
Venezuela's two best pitchers, Johan Santana and Carlos Zambrano, are not here, Santana bowing out because of a tender elbow issue, Zambrano because he wants to focus on preparing for the Cubs' season. Coincidentally, both pitched yesterday, Santana in a two-inning simulated game for the Mets, while Zambrano struck out five in three innings against the Brewers. Venezuela kept Zambrano on its final roster, which means he could conceivably pitch in later rounds, although Zambrano has not floated that as a possibility.
Sojo has a fresh closer in Francisco Rodriguez, whose new teammate in the Mets' bullpen, J.J. Putz, closed out USA's 6-5 win over Canada. Under WBC rules, Putz could be used again Sunday, but that is unlikely.
Oswalt draws the start Sunday night, and while the atmosphere was electric Saturday – "For me, this is the best experience I've ever had in baseball, and it's just one game,'' said Adam Dunn, whose two-run home run ultimately made the difference – Game 1 starter Jake Peavy said not to worry.
"Roy is so low-key, man,'' Peavy said. "Nothing bothers him. He doesn't care. We're going to have dinner, then go to a movie. We'll probably talk about some of the hitters, but he'll be ready.
"The biggest thing is trying not to do too much, because you're certainly not in midseason form.''