SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The game plan when playing as a favorite against a team that's perceived to be an extreme underdog is to knock the opponent down early and not let them get back up, lest the underdog feel it has a chance to climb back into the game.
Puerto Rico got the first part right, scoring three first-inning runs against Spain in what looked like a game headed toward rout status. It didn't exactly put away Spain, though, not scoring any more after that nine-hit opening frame. Fortunately for the home faithful at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the Spanish offense could manage to get just two runners into scoring position and the host team walked away with a 3-0 victory in its first Pool C game.
"I think that we were the only ones who were not underestimating Spain, and they showed it tonight," Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "Spain team is a good team. They have good pitching, and they showed it tonight. I mean, every victory for us is an important one. "
The win improved Puerto Rico's World Baseball Classic record in its home ballpark to an impressive 8-2. This was the team's fourth Classic win a row at Hiram Bithorn.
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Puerto Rico didn't waste any time to put any thoughts of a Spanish upset to rest, putting up three runs in its first time at bat. Angel Pagan led off with an infield single that glanced off starting pitcher Sergio Perez's glove, a sign of how things would go for Spain. Pagan came around to score on Carlos Beltran's double. A Mike Aviles sacrifice fly and a bases-loaded walk to No. 8 hitter Carlos Rivera gave Puerto Rico its other runs for the inning.
That proved to be more than enough for Giancarlo Alvarado and the rest of the Puerto Rican pitching staff. Alvarado tossed four very efficient innings, allowing just one hit -- coming with two outs in the fourth -- while walking none and striking out four. He induced six ground-ball outs during his outing.
"I would have loved to keep on and pitch the whole game, but … there's a pitch limit, and I was able to help them out until then and do my job," Alvarado said. "And I'm more than happy. And thank God the other pitchers also did a great job."
Hiram Burgos followed Alvarado and got knocked around, comparatively, giving up four hits in his 4 2/3 shutout innings. Spain's first threat of any sort came in the sixth, when Gabriel Suarez and Engel Beltre led off the frame with singles. A popup and a double play later, and Burgos was trotting back to the dugout with another zero put up on the board.
Spain got two runners aboard again in the seventh, this time with one out. But though Burgos fell behind in the count, 3-1, to Jesus Merchan, he induced Spain's third baseman to ground into an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play.
"It was excellent to score early in the game," Burgos said. "The pitchers needed to keep the game close, and thank God we did what we had to do. We need to give thanks to the defense, and we got some good double plays, and they played good defense during the whole game. The pitchers and especially me, I just attacked the strike zone and let them put the ball in play, and put it on the defense, which is very good. "
After Perez's struggles for Spain -- he would last just one batter into the third -- lefty Richard Salazar came in and shut the door. The southpaw confounded Puerto Rico's offense with offspeed and breaking stuff, throwing up five zeroes of his own and yielding just two hits in the process. In many ways, following that opening frame, Spain played evenly with Puerto Rico, showing it belongs in its Classic debut.
"Today before we left the hotel, MLB [Network] said that they would have the first knockout of the tournament, and I'm sorry for [them]," Spain manager Mauro Mazzotti said. "And we started a little bit tense, a little bit nervous, a little bit of fear, and we faltered for an inning. But I think that after, we played well and we had some good at -bats, and we had our chances.
"We played a game, and wet our feet in the tournament, and let's see. Let's see what comes next."
What comes next is the Dominican Republic, perhaps the most feared team in this Pool C grouping. Puerto Rico will move on to play Venezuela on Saturday, following by a meeting with that Dominican squad on Sunday.