The massive afternoon congregation among Florida senior citizens at this time of year could indicate one of two things: either that late-night bingo game has changed times, or Major League Baseball is back in full swing.
With the inaugural World Baseball Classic taking place at venues across the globe, my focus has recently been redirected to Lake Buena Vista, Florida, where my pick for the tournament—Venezuela—is battling the Dominican Republic, Australia and Italy in Pool D action.
Despite dropping their first game 11-5 to the powerhouse Dominicans, the Venezuelan squad comprises an excellent mix of youth, experience and talent, which should be enough to see this team hang around late in the contest.
The key factor separating Venezuela from the rest of the pack is their depth on the mound. Their starting rotation includes a great balance between right-handed pitchers and southpaws, including the likes of Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano, Freddy Garcia, Gustavo Chacin and Kelvim Escobar.
The short tournament format will force teams to change pitchers often, playing right into the hands of the Venezuelans, who have a surplus of personnel at this position. Manager Luis Sojo will be confident with any late-game lead, as his bullpen also boasts one of the best closers in the game, Francisco Rodriguez. Rodriguez secured 45 saves for the Angels last season, proving that once he takes the mound, it’s lights out.
Offensively, they are as strong as any other group. Career .300 hitters Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and 2005 home run derby champion Bobby Abreu will provide most of the offensive punch, with regular contributions from Alfonzo and Carlos Guillen. Throw in Victor Martinez, the best hitting catcher in baseball, and you have an offensive juggernaut ready to eat up weak pitching.
Defensively, 17-year shortstop Omar Vizquel and second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo will solidify a strong middle infield capable of turning crucial inning-ending double plays. Miguel Cabrera adds further stability at the hot corner, while anyone trying for extra bases will be pushing his luck with the cannon arms this outfield boasts.
Although they will attempt to win with their pitching, the supporting cast behind the mound is more than qualified to spark the team with clutch defensive efforts.
The Venezuelans have all the right tools to make a splash. Coming off their 2006 victory in the Caribbean Series against the Dominican Republic, Luis Sojo’s squad has the momentum to bring yet another title back to the country where baseball outrivals religion.
March 2006 has given baseball fans a new event to cheer for: the World Baseball Classic. While most Canadian fans are used to cheering on their favourite MLB team in Arizona or Florida at this time of year, they now have an opportunity to support their home country in this world-class tournament.
Of course, with such diverse talent, the question is, who has the best chance to win it all? One quick look at the rosters, and your eyes will immediately narrow in on one country: the Dominican Republic.
This roster is laced with so much talent, it’s scary. The new era in baseball has proven to be offensively oriented, and this is one aspect in which the Dominicans are miles ahead of other nations.
The first name that comes to mind is superstar Albert Pujols, who last season jacked 41 home runs, drove in 117 runners and hit a cool .330. The result? 2005 National League MVP.
However, this offensive juggernaut is stacked with other big name hitters, including David Ortiz, Miguel Tejada, Alfonso Soriano and Adrian Beltre. Beltre had an off season last year, but in 2004, he was able to demolish National League pitchers with 48 dingers and 121 RBIs. And how can we forget Ortiz and his heroics of 2004, leading the Red Sox to their first World Series victory in 86 years? “Big Papi’s” 2005 numbers were even more eye-popping, smacking 47 bombs, driving in 148 runners and becoming a fan favourite.
With all this power, the Dominicans don’t lack speed either. Soriano, who can hit (he had 36 home runs last season), can also steal some bases—34 last season. Willy Taveras, the speedster who leads off for the Houston Astros, swiped 30 bases last season and will definitely be a threat on the basepaths.
Nevertheless, any baseball fan knows the key to winning the big games is pitching, and the Dominican team is clearly not short of arms. The staff is led by ace and 2005 American League Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon, who last year led the league with 21 wins and a 3.48 earned run average. He’ll surely make some hitters whiff at his 95 m.p.h. fastball.
However, for this team to be World Baseball Champions, Colon will need help from his supporting cast, which includes Miguel Batista and Odalis Perez, both capable of tossing two or three strong innings.
In the end, I think what separates the Dominican Republic from the rest of the world is their love for baseball. The Dominicans live and breathe baseball, and even in the media it’s clear they are playing this tournament with great passion. I believe this intangible will be the deciding factor that’ll allow them to edge the other favourites.
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