Few roadblocks in Venezuela's way

If team is healthy and middle relief holds up, country can win it all

Venezuelan closer Francisco Rodrigez has recorded three saves in the 2009 Classic. (Jeffrey M. Boan/AP)

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MIAMI -- It can hit the ball with frequency and authority. It enters the knockout round with two starting pitchers who are going strong. Its closer is as good as any on earth. When everything clicks, Venezuela can be -- and at times has been -- the best team in the World Baseball Classic. Now everything needs to click for two more games.

A country as baseball-mad as any on earth now stands two victories away from a world championship that would send the nation into a frenzy. Three years after a second-round exit in the World Baseball Classic, Venezuela is the champion of Pool 2, and it will play the runner-up from Pool 1, Korea, on Saturday night at 9 ET. Win that, and it's on to the championship game on Monday at 9 ET.

And while any number of parts need to keep working, ultimately it will likely come down to two issues: health and the middle innings. If Venezuela's offense stays healthy and if it can adequately cover the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, it can win the World Baseball Classic.

"Now we're on our way to L.A., where our final purpose is to win those two games," said manager Luis Sojo.

The health question will linger, but it appears not to be too great a concern. Sojo rested Melvin Mora, who has a sore left hamstring, and Ramon Hernandez, who is dealing with left knee discomfort, in Wednesday's pool championship game. He also scratched Bobby Abreu due to concerns about the veteran playing on a rainy night on a wet field.

But Sojo said Wednesday that his achy players should be fully available come Saturday. They should benefit from not having to play on Wednesday, giving them four full days of rest between appearances.

The bigger concern is the middle innings. In Venezuela's only loss in the Classic, its middle relief was torched by the United States en route to a 15-6 defeat. After starter Armando Galarraga allowed three runs in 3 1/3 innings on Wednesday, it appeared that Venezuela might be in for a similar night. Ramon Ramirez allowed two runs and Carlos Vasquez one as the United States climbed back into the game.

But Victor Moreno and Orber Moreno stemmed the tide, getting Venezuela through the seventh and eighth before Sojo handed the ball to his closer, Francisco Rodriguez. It was the difference between a fairly convincing four-run win and a potential nail-biter.

"Everybody was focused in the bullpen," said Victor Moreno. "Everybody got a chance to pitch. I hadn't pitched in a week, but I was focused for those seven days, waiting for it, working on it, and the result was positive for myself."

If Venezuela is to keep winning, one of two things will need to happen. Either starters Carlos Silva and Felix Hernandez must pitch into the last third of the game or the setup and middle relievers must hold the fort. Silva will start Saturday's semifinal game, and Hernandez would pitch in a title game.

"With all due respect to the four pitchers I have, Carlos has been the best one I have," Sojo said. "We need to win the semifinal to get to the final. We've got those two guys. It doesn't matter who's pitching, I have a lot of confidence in both of them."

Starters will work on a 100-pitch limit in the semis and finals, so it's entirely possible that Silva and/or Hernandez could make it through six innings or more. Silva tossed seven outstanding innings on just 79 pitches in the opener of the second round, while Hernandez pitched 4 2/3 innings on 86 pitches. They're the biggest keys, because they can take a great deal of pressure off of the relievers.

Not that the bullpenners don't welcome that pressure. Moreno believes that having Rodriguez at the end of the game makes him better.

"To me, it's big, to prepare the road to K-Rod," he said. "I'm proud to prepare the way to him to close the game. It's something big."

And if he and his mates in the Venezuelan bullpen do their jobs to the degree they can, it will be something very big indeed.

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