Dominicans expose flawed Caribbean Classic format


Francisco Liriano helped the Escogido Leones capture this year's Caribbean Baseball Classic. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Everyone figured the Dominican Republic would be a formidable foe in this year’s Caribbean Baseball Classic. After all, they were the host team and had the best players on paper. But when the Escogido Leones schooled their opponents with four consecutive victories in this series, it was easy to see why the Dominicans are still ahead of the class when it comes to island “pelota.”

In reality, the Leones won the tournament even before losing their first game against the Aragua Tigres of Venezuela. That determination became official when Puerto Rico’s Mayaguez Indios scored a come-from-behind win over the Obregon Yaquis of Mexico in an earlier contest. This made the affair a bit anti-climatic, since there were two meaningless games scheduled on the final day. It also showed why the rules and format of this 62-year-old, round-robin event need some serious tweaking.

The Puerto Ricans would turn out to be the Cinderella team of sorts, thanks to veteran hurler Nelson Figueroa. The well-traveled New Yorker, who recently signed a minor-league deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, cruised to a 3-1 victory over the Tigres in his initial start. The 37-year-old right-hander would then keep his club close by pitching into the seventh inning of a dogfight against the Yaquis.

The Mexicans, who were attempting to defend last year’s crown, laid a huge egg in this go-round. They constantly failed to hit in key situations and were doomed by a leaky bullpen that couldn’t hold a lead. The Yaquis closer Luis Ayala, who pitched well last season for the New York Yankees, couldn’t find the plate and suffered a blown save in the fateful Indios game. The same thing happened in a 2-0 loss against the Leones. Mario Mendoza Jr. entered the game in a crucial moment and couldn’t throw enough strikes to keep his team in the hunt. Despite adding slugger Karim Garcia and speedster Chris Robertson to the final roster, Mexico batted a miserable .183 for the tournament and couldn’t support the decent efforts of starting pitchers Edgar Gonzalez, Rolondo Valdez, Luis Mendoza and Randy Keisler.

“We just couldn’t get anything going,” admitted seasoned infielder Oscar Robles. “This was very disappointing.”

The Tigres from Venezuela were a bit happier, finishing strong to salvage a 3-3 record. Oddly, this team made very few roster moves and elected to stick with a group of no-name, journeymen players. Offensively, at least, they were impressive. Leading the pack were outfielders Cesar Suarez and Adonis Garcia, who batted .360 and .348, respectively, and neither man has ever played professionally in the United States. The Tigres did showcase one youngster, 23-year-old Miguel Rojas, who looks to have a bright future with the Cincinnati Reds.

It was tough to match the clout of the Leones, though, who were loaded with current and former major-league stars. The parade of talent was headed by Minnesota Twins lefty Francisco Liriano, who pitched only five innings and scattered four hits against the Yaquis. The Dominicans also boasted the services of tested veterans Fernando Tatis and Julio Lugo. Texas Rangers outfielder Julio Borbon had a poor showing, but Atlanta Braves prospects Jose Constanza and Jairo Asencio proved they were the real deal. Asencio, 27, anchored Escogido’s bullpen, notching three saves. And then there was Detroit Tigers outfielder Andy Dirks, who was the darling of the Dominican fans and seemed embarrassed about all the fuss.

“I just came down here to play some ball and have fun,” he said sheepishly.

Next year, the rotating tournament site will return to Mexico and the host city, Hermosillo, will inaugurate a new stadium. But many adjustments must be made for this affair to regain its prestige. Stricter rules must be in place to standardize rosters. More teams should be added to the mix, ideally six participants, with each country playing each other one time only. Then the squads with the two best records square off for the championship.

There is talk of allowing Cuba to compete for the first time since 1960, according to Caribbean Confederation commissioner Juan Francisco Puello. I say extend invitations to Panama and Colombia. Then down the road, reach out to Cuba and Nicaragua, provided Raul Castro and Daniel Ortega, the leaders from those countries, push ahead with democratic reforms.

Oops, sorry for that outburst. There should be no politics in baseball.

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