P.R. drops first 2009 Classic game

Squad falls to Venezuela, must beat U.S. on Tuesday to advance

Carlos Delagdo tosses his bat aside after fanning to end the fifth inning on Monday. (Jeffrey M. Boan/AP)

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MIAMI -- The only undefeated team in the World Baseball Classic ran into what is looking like the best team in the tournament.

Previously unbeaten Puerto Rico fell, 2-0, to Venezuela on Monday night, as Felix Hernandez and Francisco Rodriguez bookended a strong pitching performance, while the Puerto Rican pitching staff slowed but couldn't completely stop a potent Venezuelan offense. Carlos Guillen's RBI single and Ramon Hernandez's initially disallowed home run sent Puerto Rico to its first defeat in the Classic.

Ian Snell offered an admirable effort over four innings against a lineup stacked with power, allowing a single run on five hits. He stranded runners in every inning and made big pitch after big pitch, but he simply put himself in trouble one too many times.

"You see it as trouble," Snell told reporters after the game. "I don't see it as trouble. They hit good pitches. You've got to tip your hat to them. They're a good team and very aggressive. A lot of those guys are in the big leagues. They're not there by mistake. I made good pitches; they hit it. You see it as trouble. I just see it as working hard and they're working hard and you've just got to go with it."

With Hernandez and the Venezuelan bullpen dealing, a single run was enough to defeat a Puerto Rican team that has hit well but not spectacularly in the Classic. Insurance came in the form of Hernandez's seventh-inning homer off of Giancarlo Alvarado. The ball was not called a home run at first, but after the umpiring crew conferred for 10 minutes, Hernandez was credited with the long ball that made it 2-0.

Puerto Rico had chances on offense, but very few of them with less than two outs. Hernandez pitched 4 2/3 innings, allowing at least one baserunner in every inning but the fourth, but Puerto Rico couldn't drive the runners home. Reliever Carlos Vasquez got the biggest out of the game, striking out Carlos Delgado with runners on first and third to end the fifth inning.

Hernandez, known as "King Felix," subjected Puerto Rico to seven strikeouts. He walked four, but never allowed a run.

"When you have a guy that's 23 years old, and he can throw any pitch in any count for a strike, that's tough," said Ivan Rodriguez. "That's a tough pitcher to hit. He struck out Alex Cora with a 3-2 breaking ball. ... You have a guy who throws 94-96 [mph] and then has that other weapon, that he can throw that breaking ball 3-2 for a strike, it's tough."

Venezuela's bullpen in front of K-Rod, which had seemed like perhaps the club's Achilles' heel, performed just as well as its starter and closer on Monday. Puerto Rico got the leadoff man on base in the seventh, and two on with one out in the eighth, but again and again the rallies were snuffed. Puerto Rico went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position, including three inning-ending strikeouts.

"Sometimes you have to give credit," Ivan Rodriguez said. "When you have three, four guys that pitch great and do their job, especially the starter for five innings, then the next three guys and then K-Rod in the ninth, sometimes you have to give credit to their pitchers. That was the game. We fought, but I'm telling you, they played good ball and did the things they were supposed to do. They played little ball, they pitched great, and when you do that, you win ballgames."

Puerto Rico was shut out without one of its best hitters even picking up a bat. Geovany Soto, who hit .285, slugged .504 and ripped 23 home runs and 60 extra-base hits for the Cubs in 2008, did not appear in the game. Neither did Mike Aviles, who batted .325 with a .480 slugging percentage for the Royals as a rookie in '08. Meanwhile, Alex Cora hit for himself in the seventh inning with a runner on first and no outs, grounding into a force play.

"We were not in that situation because we could have hit and run, and Cora is a good hit-and-run player," said Puerto Rico manager Jose Oquendo.

With the loss, Puerto Rico must defeat the United States on Tuesday night to avoid elimination. The winner of that game will face Venezuela for the Pool 2 championship on Wednesday. Venezuela's win advances it to the semifinals of the Classic in Los Angeles regardless of what happens on Wednesday.

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