Having already defeated group powers Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, Venezuela encountered the exhale scenario in its third World Baseball Classic Pool D game against Nicaragua Tuesday afternoon.
Nicaragua had lost its first three games and, by finishing last in the group, is relegated to qualifiers for the next WBC.
The letdown trap clearly evident, Venezuela overcame an early deficit and defeated Nicaragua 4-1 to inch closer in securing the group’s top spot.
The victory, coupled with the Dominican Republic’s 10-0 win over Israel late Tuesday night, meant Venezuela advanced to the second round for the fourth time in tournament history. Venezuela has made one semifinal appearance, losing to South Korea in 2009.
Venezuela took the lead for good with a three-run fourth. Andres Gimenez’s RBI single tied it and Eugenio Suarez followed with a go-ahead two-run single.
“We are always looking for the good pitch and at the same time remain calm,” Gimenez said. “That is crucial in my approach.”
In his first WBC tournament with Venezuela, the Cleveland Guardians infielder is savoring the opportunity.
“Every time I get to the stadium, I try to remain calm but once I cross the foul lines all there is on my mind is competing,” Gimenez said. “That’s my nature – competitive at all times. I’ll do whatever it takes to help the team win.”
Venezuela’s impressive tournament start has happened despite the offensive woes by Ronald Acuña Jr. The Atlanta Braves’ All-Star outfielder is 1-for-11 and stranded 15 runners in the first three games.
“Perhaps he’s a bit too anxious, trying to put damage on the ball,” Venezuela manager Omar Lopez said. “I believe impatience is not a virtue. In fact, patience is what will help him and that’s what we’ll try to find in the next game.”
Detroit Tigers left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez also struggled in his start for Venezuela. Rodriguez allowed seven hits and one run and was lifted after Alex Blandino’s leadoff double in the third.
Jose Ruiz relieved Rodriguez and set the tone for a shutdown performance by Venezuela’s bullpen. Ruiz, who pitched two perfect innings, got the win.
Venezuela relievers struck out nine without a walk in seven innings. Carlos Hernandez followed Ruiz and fanned four through the next two frames.
“We have to be ready for any opportunity that comes,” Hernandez said. “In any situation we could get the call. All I try to do is provide my two grains of sand.”
Nicaragua loaded the bases against Rodriguez with one out in the second but managed only Brandon Leyton’s RBI groundout.
Eleven-year major league pitcher Erasmo Ramirez started and kept Venezuela in check with three scoreless innings.
Although Nicaragua lost all pool games in its first WBC appearance, manager Sandor Guido believed the team had several signature moments, none more noteworthy than the life-changing performance by reliever Duque Hebbert.
The 21-year-old Hebbert pitched the ninth inning against the Dominican Republic Monday and struck out major league All-Stars Julio Rodriguez, Juan Soto and Rafael Devers. Shortly after the game, the Detroit Tigers signed Hebbert to a minor league contract.
“It is incredible what we accomplished, especially with the quality of teams that we faced,” Guido said. “Despite the negative results, we did a good job and this will be something we will build on.”
Venezuela will close group play against Israel Wednesday afternoon with a chance to earn the group’s top spot.
The other remaining incentive is joining two-time tournament champion Japan as the only teams to finish unbeaten in pool games.
This story was originally published March 14, 2023, 6:38 PM.