Vazquez silences potent U.S. lineup

Puerto Rico starter handcuffs Americans amid offensive fireworks

Javier Vazquez allowed a run on four hits over five innings, striking out two without a walk. (AP)

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MIAMI -- Things had gotten a little hairy for Puerto Rico and starter Javier Vazquez. They still held a five-run lead, but with two men in scoring position and the top of Team USA's order lurking, any mistake threatened to change the tone of what had been a laugher thus far.

No problem.

On the sixth pitch of a hotly contested at-bat, Vazquez dropped in a perfect curveball that froze Mark DeRosa and stemmed the tide of an inning that was teetering on the edge of danger. DeRosa watched strike three settle into Ivan Rodriguez's mitt, Shane Victorino followed with a languid fly ball to left field, and Puerto Rico resumed its path to victory in its first game of the second round of the World Baseball Classic.

The Puerto Rican bats drew the oohs and ahhs from the crowd of 30,595 at Dolphin Stadium, but Vazquez shone as bright as any of the offensive pyrotechnics. Facing a lineup that totaled 230 home runs in the 2008 Major League season, Vazquez sliced up Team USA. The new Atlanta Braves starter allowed a run on four hits over five innings, striking out two without a walk.

He pounded the strike zone, and more specifically the bottom of the zone, not giving the powerful USA lineup any pitches to hit -- nor any opportunities at a free base.

But things got dicey in the fifth, and manager Jose Oquendo admitted afterward that he wasn't far from applying the hook to Vazquez. However, Vazquez escaped with the lead intact, and his team went on to throttle the USA into submission in an 11-1 win.

"They got a couple men on base with nobody on, and they got a run there with one out," Vazquez said. "The main thing what I was thinking is try to not let them score the guy that was on second. The guy that was on third, if he scores, we're still up [by four]. So I had to stay aggressive because we had a lead, and obviously when I had DeRosa with two strikes I was thinking try to strike him out, and gladly I did. And after that a fly out and it was a big out there."

Oquendo removed Vazquez from the game after that inning, and the Puerto Rican bullpen did much the same as the starter. The intimidating USA lineup remained quiet.

"I thought he was pretty good and he was making some pitches, keeping the ball down in the zone," said Davey Johnson, the United States' manager. "And you had an umpire that was calling pitches down in the zone. You tip your hat to the pitcher this time of year. He made good pitches."

In the postgame news conference, one reporter asked Vazquez about his reputation as something less than a big-game pitcher. Vazquez gave a thoughtful, considered answer, but it was Oquendo who said everything without saying a word. The manager simply rolled his eyes as the question was being asked, making it very clear that he never doubted his No. 1 starter.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.