Classic means everything to Puerto Rico
Soto convinced team's pitching will hold up well
When Puerto Rico hosts Panama in its World Baseball Classic Opener on March 7, it will field a potent lineup that includes Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, Alex Rios and Geovany Soto.
But Soto, the team's starting catcher, says it's a mistake to assume the club's pitching staff doesn't measure up to the everyday lineup.
"I don't think people should see it that way," says Soto, the 2008 National League Rookie of the Year. "We've got some really good pitchers, and whoever we've got out there is going to do a great job."
Manager Jose Oquendo will rely on a rotation of right-handers Javier Vazquez (Braves), Ian Snell (Pirates) and lefty Jonathan Sanchez (Giants). Joel Pineiro (Cardinals) bowed out of the Classic last week after Oquendo, the Cardinals' third-base coach, chose not to take him as part of the starting rotation.
The bullpen includes J.C. Romero, who starred for the Phillies in the 2008 World Series.
"We have a complete team," says infielder Alex Cora of the Mets. "With the guys we have, we feel very capable of playing well."
Puerto Rico will host opening-round play at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan. Pool C also includes the Dominican Republic and the Netherlands, who square off in the first game of the March 7 double-header.
While the World Baseball Classic will compete for attention in the United States with spring training baseball, college basketball, and the end of the NBA and NHL seasons, it will be the No. 1 sporting attraction in Puerto Rico.
"We're very lucky and proud to put the uniform on and represent Puerto Rico," Cora says. "If we end up winning the tournament -- wow! -- we can only dream of how people back home are going to react to it."
In 2006, Puerto Rico went undefeated in pool play and defeated eventual runner-up Cuba. The team also beat the Dominican Republic in the second round before falling to Venezuela and in a rematch to Cuba, finishing fifth in the final standings.
Beltran, one of the team's bigger stars, says he's most looking forward to competing in the dugout with up-and-coming stars like Soto and Mike Aviles of the Royals, as well as with recently-retired players such as Bernie Williams, the former Yankees outfielder.
"Fans will get to see all of the Puerto Rico players in the big leagues representing one team, and there's going to be a lot of excitement for fans and for us," Beltran said. "They're looking forward to seeing what we can do this year. After losing the game against Cuba last time, there are going to be a lot of expectations."
Pete Williams is a freelance writer based in Safety Harbor, Fla.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.