Nobody Is Having More Fun At The WBC Than Venezuela
11:28 AM EDT on March 13, 2023
In 2009, I went back home to Miami during spring break of my sophomore year of college. Though part of the reason for my escape south was that I needed to get out of New York City during the last throes of winter, the real impetus was that I wanted to attend some of the World Baseball Classic games going on at the Dolphins' stadium, whatever it was called back then. Specifically, I wanted to watch Venezuela play in person, after watching them, on TV, win the opening round Pool D in Toronto. The World Baseball Classic isn't the most prestigious of tournaments in sports, but for a country that is good mainly at baseball and no other marquee sports, this was Venezuela's World Cup.
My dad will tell anyone that listens that the best moment from that week of WBC games in Miami Gardens was when he caught an Iván Rodríguez foul ball line drive, but for me, it was Venezuela's 2-0 win over Puerto Rico that I remember most. That Puerto Rico team had been steam-rolling through the tournament; they entered that pivotal Mar. 16, 2009 game, playing for a spot in the final four, as the favorites, having having walked through the first round of the tournament and then whooping the United States 11-1 in its previous game.
All of that hype didn't matter one bit, though, as Venezuela won a scrappy Monday night showdown, thanks to some stellar pitching from my all-time favorite, Felix Hernandez, and a bit of instant replay wonkiness. (Ah, 2009, so quaint.)
I was thinking about that game a lot this weekend, as Venezuela kicked off its 2023 World Baseball Classic in as difficult a fashion as any team could. First, on Saturday night, my home country took on the tournament favorites of the Dominican Republic, a team so loaded with talent that it elicited a bunch of awed tweets about the lineup for the opening Pool D game.
That lineup got on the board in the top of the first against Martin Perez, courtesy of a Juan Soto double that drove in Julio Rodríguez. That lineup also would not score again, as Venezuela's own contact-heavy batters first evened the score in the bottom of the second (thanks to an Anthony Santander solo homer; more on him in a bit), and then took a 5-1 lead home while Perez and the bullpen held the Dominican Republic to five hits and no runs in the remaining eight innings.
After that upset—and there's no way to call it anything but an upset, no matter how good Venezuela is—the focus shifted to Puerto Rico once again. If the Dominican Republic is Venezuela's WBC boogeyman (Saturday's win was the first against the D.R. in six attempts for Venezuela), Puerto Rico is a close second, having eliminated La Vinotinto in 2013 and helping to do the same in 2017. Perhaps that's why Venezuela's players came out so fired up for both of this weekend's games; beyond the more immediate context of needing to finish in the top two of a three-sided triangle of death in the pool, there's a history with both Caribbean sides here that needed correcting.
That's exactly what happened on Sunday. Designated as the away team, Venezuela came out to hit first against Blue Jays pitcher Jose Berrios. By the time Berrios was yanked with no outs in the top of the second, Venezuela was up 3-0 and had two runners on base. Berrios got, for lack of a better word, shellacked: He faced 11 batters, recorded three outs, gave up five hits, two walks, one homer to Santander (who now has two dingers and four RBIs), four runs, and left two on base that then scored when Salvador Perez cranked a deep three-run shot off of reliever Fernando Cruz:
If Santander isn't Venezuela's MVP, then it's Perez, who obliterated Puerto Rico's pitchers on Sunday, to the tune of four hits in four at-bats, three runs scored, and five RBIs. By the time he was pulled from the game, Venezuela was up big and probably already thinking about how to spend a day off on Monday in Miami. That switch, which had been cranked to the max for both games so far, turned off after Perez, the team's emotional leader, was subbed out, and Venezuela's bullpen, its biggest weakness on paper, let Puerto Rico back in the game with a four-run sixth inning, after Pablo Lopez had shut down the Puerto Rican bats for 4.2 innings, one solo home run from Eddie Rosario excepted.
Still, though, Venezuela rode its massive early lead, a clutch six-out appearance from nominal closer Silvino Bracho, and a wild atmosphere—that's the first time I, a Marlins fan, have said that about a game taking place at Marlins Park—to a 9-6 win and the drivers' seat in Pool D.
As Venezuela enjoys its group play bye day on Monday, with victories over the other two heavyweights in its group, the focus can begin to shift, somewhat, towards making a run as the tournament moves to a knockout round. If Venezuela takes care of business against the over-matched squads of Nicaragua and Israel, it will face the runner-up of Pool C for a spot in the semi-finals.
That aforementioned 2009 team currently holds the distinction of going deeper in the WBC than any other Venezuelan side, finishing third. That could change this year: The 2023 edition has already vanquished two of the hardest opponents it will face; only Japan and, in theory if not practice so far, the United States should pose significant threats outside of Pool D.
The good news for Venezuela and its fans is that, no matter what, the rest of the team's games will take place in Miami, where La Vinotinto has already seen incredible fan support. This was the case in 2009 as well; Venezuelan fans don't travel so well, but there are a lot of us in the greater Miami area, which leads to things like an entire stadium concourse of fans bellowing out "Gloria al Bravo Pueblo" (the national anthem) as they file out into the night.
Given how the offense is clicking, and how the starting pitching has been able to shut down two powerhouses, this Venezuela team could ride its initial success and the wave of fan energy all the way to the WBC title, the team's first. For a country that prides itself on baseball to such a high degree, it would help erase some of the previous WBC disappointments. At the very least, I feel the same way about the 2023 team as I did about the 2009 edition: They're fun, they're loud, and they have the players and circumstances to go all the way. I wish I had made the decision to fly down to Miami for this weekend's games, because the atmosphere surrounding this Venezuela team has been impeccably entertaining so far.