Friday, February 5, 2016

Venados end CS first round at 4-0; to play Cubans in semis

Leadoff batter Jeremias Pineda (pictured) had a productive day at the plate, including one of four consecutive doubles during a six-run eighth inning, to pace the Mazatlan Venados' 8-4 win over Puerto Rico's Santurce Cangrejeros Friday as both sides wrapped up their first-round schedules.  With the win, Mazatlan finished the opening round-robin at 4-0 to earn the top seed at Saturday's semifinals in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

After the teams opened play by trading zeroes for two innings, Paul Leon put the Mexican Pacific League pennant-winners on the scoreboard in the top of the third when his grounder drew an errant throw into right field from Santurce third baseman T.J. Rivera (allowing Leon to take second), advanced to third on Ramon Urias' ground out to second and came in on a two-out Pineda line-drive single up the middle off Cangrejeros starter Hiram Burgos.

Venados starter Arturo Lopez fairly sailed through the first three frames before his defense pulled an epic fail in the fourth, allowing the Crabbers to take a 2-1 lead.  After Kennys Vargas flew out to lead off the frame, Leon mishandled a Rivera grounder to short for a error.  Henry Ramos then hit another grounder that Leon fielded cleanly and flipped to second sacker Ramon Urias to start a double play, only to have Urias miss the ball on the pivot.  Instead of the inning being over, Lopez served up a Danny Ortiz single to center that brought Rivera in with the tying run.

Then, as Lopez pitched to Joe Lozada, Santurce attempted a double-steal, drawing a throw from Mazatlan catcher Sebastian Valle that sailed high above second base into center field, allowing Ramos to pause briefly at third before lighting out for home and sliding in ahead of Justin Greene's throw to Valle for the go-ahead tally. Neither Puerto Rican run was earned but no further damage was done.

The two sides swapped two more scoreless frames before the Venados knotted the score in the top of the seventh when Pineda lined a two-out triple past Santurce centerfielder Ramos, then came in on Greene's bunt single down the third-base line to make it a 2-2 game.  Greene then took second with his third stolen base of the CS, but Alex Liddi popped out to first baseman Neftali Soto in foul territory to end the inning.

After Jesus Barraza blanked the Cangrejeros in the bottom of the seventh, Mazatlan kicked open the flood gates by sending ten batters to the plate en route to six runs on as many hits.  The frame was highlighted by consecutive doubles from Cyle Hankerd, Urias, Pineda and Greene, with Hankerd's and Urias' two-baggers driving in two runs apiece.

Bolstered by the 8-2 lead handed over to them, Barraza and three other relievers combined to hold Santurce to one run in the eighth and one more in the ninth, a drop-off from the Mazatlan bullpen's three previous outings but good enough for Barraza to be awarded the win while wrapping up the Venados' fourth straight triumph in Santo Domingo this week.

Pineda, Greene and DH Javier Vazquez each had three of Mazatlan's 15 hits, with Pineda (who'd gone 0-for-8 before Friday's game) scoring twice and driving in two runs while Greene batted in two more.  Although he wasn't the pitcher of record, Lopez gave manager Juan Jose Pacho six strong innings, allowing no earned runs on five hits, striking out seven and walking none.  Efrain Nieves bore the brunt of Mazatlan's eighth-inning outburst, allowing all six runs in two-thirds of the frame for the loss.

The win clinches the top seed for the 4-0 Venados in Saturday's semifinal, one game better than Venezuela's Aragua Tigres at 3-3 and two up on Santurce's 3-3 mark.  Ciego de Avila needed eleven innings to nudge host Escogido, 4-2 Friday night, giving the Cubans a 1-3 first round record and the final berth in the semis while the Dominicans finished 0-4.  Aragua plays Santurce at 3:00PM ET in Saturday's first game while Mazatlan meets Ciego de Avila in the 7:50PM nightcap.