Puerto Rico quickly making a point

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- After one of the team's practices in Fort Myers, Fla., Puerto Rico general manager Lou Melendez gathered his team in the clubhouse for what amounted to a pre-tournament pep talk.

After the usual introductions and other such formalities, Melendez bluntly told the team, "A lot of people are focusing on the United States, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic to win the Classic. I feel bad because everybody's focusing on three countries and not looking at us and we're a good team. And we'll prove that to everybody."

Such a fact has become undeniable after Puerto Rico's first two games in the WBC, the first a thumping of Panama, and the second a 3-1 thriller Monday against the plucky Netherlands, who even in defeat, continued to stake claim to an improving baseball program.

While its rival, the Dominican Republic, is floundering in roster controversy, manager Felipe Alou's daily rants against the WBC format and embarrassment after a loss to the Netherlands on Saturday, Puerto Rico seems poised for a strong run at the WBC title.

The Puerto Rico team has neither been struck by serious injuries nor has it had players decline to participate because of a lack of interest, two things that have plagued the Dominican team.

"I had the opposite problem," Melendez said. "And I know some of the stuff that happened to the Dominican Republic has to be attributed obviously to injury. But all the guys who are here desperately wanted to play. All the guys who didn't make the 28-man roster were disappointed that they didn't get a chance to be on this team. So that was the least of my problems. These are guys that wanted to play, they had committed."

Most of Major League Baseball's Puerto Rican stars are participating in the Classic. Those who are not -- Bengie Molina, Jorge Posada, Mike Lowell and Joel Pineiro -- have been easily replaced.

Puerto Rico's roster is balanced with power (Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran), speed (Mike Aviles and Ramon Vazquez) and a deep rotation (Javier Vazquez, Ian Snell and Jonathan Sanchez).

Unlike the Dominican team, whose players are each stuck to one position, the Puerto Rican team is filled with players who can play a variety of positions, such as Felipe Lopez (SS, 2B), Ramon Vazquez (all infield positions) and Alex Cora (all infield positions). Puerto Rico also has the best catching corps in the tournament in Ivan Rodriguez, 2008 National League Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto and Yadier Molina, who on Monday provided the biggest hit of the night, a one-out, two-run, eighth-inning double that gave Puerto Rico a 2-1 lead.

After the double, Molina looked toward the sky to thank his father Benjamin, who died of a heart attack in October 2008.

"[Monday's] game was an emotional game," Molina said. "It was exciting to be in front of my family. Knowing that he was not here physically … but I know he was here spiritually. I asked God to give me a chance to make him proud of me. And I was able to do so. I dedicate that hit to him and all my family."

Had it not been for Molina's double, surely the talk of the tournament would have continued to be the Netherlands, whose persistence may best be exemplified by young hurler Juan Carlos Sulbaran, a 19-year-old who last year was pitching at American Heritage High School in Plantation, Fla., and has never pitched in a professional game.

To end successive innings, Sulbaran struck out Rodriguez, likely a future Hall of Famer, with men on first and third in the sixth with a slurve, and induced a bases-loaded groundout from $119 million man Beltran in the seventh with a tailing fastball.

"When you're off the field, they're the heroes, the major league players, everyone you want to look up to," Sulbaran said of Rodriguez and Beltran. "When you play against them, to me, they're no one. They're just a baseball player and you have to compete against them."

Sulbaran, a 30th-round draft pick last year who received $500,000 from the Cincinnati Reds to bypass a college career at Florida, recently pulled off a coup when he traded for Beltran in his video game league. Last year at this time, he said he was looking for a prom date. While the players he faced from Puerto Rico are mostly millionaires, Sulbaran continues to live with his mother, Carla, and his sister, Carolina, in Davie, Fla.

Netherlands manager Rod Delmonico said he did not hesitate to bring in Sulbaran in relief in the sixth with men on first and third to face Rodriguez since the young pitcher had already faced Cuba in last year's Olympics (two earned runs in 4 2/3 innings). As he entered the game, Sulbaran felt the roar of the sellout crowd. Before he threw his first pitch, he said under his breath, "The louder you get, the better I pitch."

To continue its remarkable run, the Netherlands will once again have to defeat the Dominican in Tuesday's elimination game.

Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican team was so satisfied with its performance in the first two games, it called off Tuesday's practice. As it has proven to everyone, there is no longer a need for practices or pep talks.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.