It’s the playoffs in the Winter Leagues, when heroes are made and goats are reviled. With just one spot remaining for the Caribbean Series, all eyes are on the Lara-Magallanes series to determine the champion of the Venezuelan Winter League, and everyone catching got a great one on Monday night.
Venezuelan Winter League Championship Series: Cardenales de Lara 3, Navegantes de Magallanes 2
After watching the other three Winter League Championship Series end quickly, it’s been nice to see at least one of them deliver the type of exciting atmosphere playoff baseball deserves. The Navegantes and Lara both did everything they could to try to scratch and claw their way to victory in this one, but after 11 innings, one team finally separated itself and came through when in mattered most. The pitching matchup in this game, featured big leaguers on both sides: the well-known Carlos Zambrano for Magallanes and former MLB middle reliever Ken Ray for Lara. The Cardelanes struck first in this one, with Braves first base prospect Ernesto Mejia delivering an RBI single in the 1st off Zambrano. Both pitchers took off from there, not allowing another run through 5 innings and facing the minimum three in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th innings. But Ray quickly got into trouble in the 6th, allowing a pair of singles and a hit-by-pitch to load the bases with 1 out. Out was Ray in favor of Yankees and Pirate reliever and Rays minor leaguer Romulo Sanchez. But Sanchez was a disaster, allowing two bases-loaded walks while recording just 1 out, and Cardinals prospect Richard Castillo had to come in to escape the jam. The damage had already been done as Magallanes took a 2-1 lead. But Lara responded in the bottom of the inning. The Mariners’ Luis Jimenez singled to begin the inning versus Zambrano, and two batters later, the Cubs’ Luis Valbuena responded in turn, with a Juan Rivera error moving Jimenez to third base. That proved huge as Pablo Sandoval could not handle a groundball off the bat of the Dogers’ C.J. Retherford, scoring Jimenez to tie the game at a run apiece. Zambrano pitched well for Magallanes, going 6+ innings allowing 2 runs, 1 earned, on 8 hits, striking 5 while walking 1.
The game became a battle of the bullpens, and both teams’ relief corps were up to the task. The Phillies’ Cesar Jimenez was absolutely lights out for Lara, going 3 innings allowing just a walk, striking out 6 and recording his other 3 outs on the ground. A lefty armed with a low-90′s fastball and an unhittable changeup, Jimenez could be an interesting pitcher for Philadelphia next season out of the bullpen. But Magallanes managed to match Jimenez, albeit in not as impressive fashion, with the Royals’ Atahualpa Severino going 2 perfect innings before the Twins’ Deolis Guerra and Enrique Gonzalez of the Japanese Pacific League pieced together the 9th to send the game into extra innings. In the 10th, Victor Merono of the Mexican League followed up Jimenez by striking out the side while Gonzalez worked a perfect inning of his own in the bottom of the frame. Things got sketchy for Moreno in the 11th as he allowed two walks and hit-by-pitch with 2 outs, but he worked out of trouble. Then Gonzalez run into trouble to begin the bottom half of the inning. Mejia singled to begin the inning and was pinch-ran for by Hernan Iribarren. Luis Valbuena bunted Iribarren to second base, but a missed catch error meant everyone was safe. But then C.J. Retherford grounded into a force play at third base and the Navegantes were a double play from escaping. But the Braves’ Jose Yepez was going to let that happen. Yepez came through with a walk-off single as Lara won 3-2. It was a crazy game highlighted by great pitching- Magallanes was held to just 5 hits in the game- and Lara managed to deliver in extra-innings to take a 3-2 edge in the series and sit one win away from the Caribbean Series.