With a roster full of young prospects, Major League talent and veteran leadership, Nicaragua’s National Baseball Team will take the field against Colombia on Friday evening in Panama City to battle for a ticket to the 2013 World Baseball Classic in San Francisco, California.
Under the management of national sports legend Denis Martínez, the winningest latino pitcher in Major League Baseball history, Nicaragua will send big league hurler Erasmo Ramírez to the mound to face an evenly matched Colombian national team led by veteran big league shortstop Edgar Rentería, Texas Rangers’ catcher Luis Martínez, and Miami Marlins’ second basemen Donovan Solano.
Ramírez, 22, made his Major League debut with the Seattle Mariners last season and had a solid rookie year with a 3.36 ERA in 59 innings, split between eight starts and several relief appearances. Friday could be the biggest start of Ramírez’s career, as Nicaragua tries to qualify for its first appearance at the World Baseball Classic, which Japan won in the first two tournaments in 2006 and 2009.
Friday’s game is a must-win situation for Nicaragua. Though the “Pinoleros” are guaranteed to play three games in this weekend’s round-robin tournament in Panama, a loss in the opening game would make advancing to the finals on Monday extremely difficult.
Only one of the four teams playing in this weekend’s qualifying tournament in Rod Carew Stadium will advance to the World Baseball Classic next year. Overall, this is the third qualifying round to determine the 28 teams that will play in next year’s World Baseball Classic. Spain has already qualified by beating Israel, South Africa and France in the first tournament, and Canada will also advance after besting Great Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic.
Thailand, Philippines, Taiwan and New Zealand will also be battling this weekend for the fourth ticket to next year’s championship tournament.
Nicaragua to showcase young talent
Erasmo Ramírez, who is currently playing winter ball in the Venezuelan league, was not the obvious choice to get the nod as Nicaragua’s starter for game one. But he quickly became the staff ace when Nicaragua’s other two big league hurlers—Vicente Padilla (Red Sox) and Wilton López (Astros)—opted out of playing for the national team.
“Obviously their absence is a big loss, but we are going with who we have and we are going to play our hardest and showcase the talent we have,” Denis Martínez told The Nicaragua Dispatch during the final day of practice in Managua before the team boarded the bus for Panama.
Nicaragua’s offense will be ignited by leadoff hitter Everth Cabrera, the San Diego Padres’ fleet-footed shortstop who stole his way into the record books last year by swiping a National League leading 44 bases. If Cabrera can get on base and get into scoring position, he’ll look to get knocked home by Nicaragua’s veteran artillerymen Ofilio Castro (OF) and Justo Rivas (DH), Kansas City Royals’ power-hitting prospect Cheslor Cuthbert (3B), or smooth-swinging outfielders Dwight Britton and Renato Morales.
In Nicaragua’s bullpen vying for the No. 2 pitching job are prospects J.C. Ramirez, a tall, hard-throwing farmhand for the Phillies who can hit 95 MPH on the radar gun, Edgar Ramírez, a starting pitcher for the AAA Mets, and lefthander Douglas Argüello, who used to pitch in the Astros farm system and now plays in the independent league.
On Monday at Denis Martínez stadium in Managua, the man by the same name worked with his young pitchers to teach them to pitch aggressively with a slide-step delivery from the stretch—a tactic many seemed unfamiliar with.
“Aggressive! Aggressive! Raaaah-raaaah! You have to be aggressive when you go into battle!” Martínez urged his pitchers, as he demonstrated the slide-step delivery, spitting tobacco juice for emphasis.
In the infield, Cabrera and Cuthbert took batting practice. The Padres’ speedster sprayed the ball to all fields, while the big-swinging Cuthbert sent balls bouncing off the concrete grandstands over the left field wall.
In the outfield, the rest of the Nicaraguan players shagged balls lazily in the pounding midday sun, tossing their gloves in the air at Cuthbert’s monster shots into the bleachers.
“Our prospects are solid; all the guys are really motivated and we have a lot of talent on the team,” Cabrera told The Nicaragua Dispatch after his batting practice. “We could be the surprise of the tournament.”
For Nicaragua, the road to qualification goes through Colombia and Panama, which is the favorite of the four teams thanks to its home-field advantage and a stacked lineup featuring big league veteran slugger Carlos Lee, all-star catcher Carlos Ruiz, Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada, and veteran MLB fireballer Manny Acosta.
Panama will open the tournament tonight at 7 p.m. against Brazil, a team led by Cleveland Indian’s catcher Yan Gomes, the only Brazilian playing in the Major Leagues.
Talented yes, but disciplined?
Nicaragua’s greatest opponent in past international tournaments has always been itself—and always off the field.
During the 2003 Baseball World Cup, several members of Nicaragua’s national team—still dressed in uniform—decided to celebrate their first-round win by getting drunk and rowdy in the hotel bar. The next day, the hung-over and sluggish Nica team stumbled around on the field for nine innings and got pounded by a sober Panamanian team.
Team Nicaragua took off-field scandal to a next level in 2010, when Nicaraguan catcher Gustavo Horacio López was thrown in jail in Taiwan after being accused of raping a local woman in his hotel room after a game. López was later found not guilty, but the scandal didn’t help Nicaragua’s performance in the tournament.
Allegations of sexual misconduct also plague Nicaragua’s star third basemen Jimmy González, who is arguably the best hitter in the Nicaraguan Professional Baseball League. González was accused of raping and impregnating a 13-year-old girl in Granada last year, but was then absolved (despite loud protest from human-rights groups and feminist organizations).
Still, González will not be joining the team in Panama, after being banned from international play by the Nicaraguan Baseball Federation, which is apparently stricter than Nicaragua’s judicial system.
Despite Team Nicaragua’s sullied past, the players and coaches insist this year’s squad is different.
“We have talent and discipline—the players are very dedicated,” Cabrera says of his teammates. “Plus, we have tremendous leadership from Denis Martínez; he is a great talent and the guys are learning from all his experience in the Big Leagues.”
Martínez, too, says the players know that it takes discipline to win on the international level.
“I think these guys know what discipline is, and they are already developing that discipline in a professional baseball system,” Martínez told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “We are not being militaristic about it, but we are implementing a professional baseball system.”
“We have worked hard and done intensive training,” Martínez adds. “We feel we are well prepared. The professors have given their class, and now it’s time for the guys to execute and use their talents. We are going to fight with everything we have. We are going to leave our hearts on the field to represent the country and, God willing, we will quality.”
The Nicaragua-Colombia game starts at 7 p.m. Friday night Nicaragua time. Nicaragua’s second game will be on Saturday either at 1 p.m. against Brazil, or 7 p.m. (Nicaragua time) against Panama, depending on their performance in game one.