Yadier Molina in 36th Caribbean Series

Yadier Molina's Carolina Giants will represent Puerto Rico in the Caribbean tourney February 2 -7.

Lions and Tigers and Deer and Giants…

With Sunday's victory by Venezuela's Caracas Leones (Lions) over the Aragua Tigres (Tigers), all four participants in this year's Caribbean Series are set. The six-day round-robin tournament of daily doubleheaders begins this Thursday, February 2 and runs through next Tuesday, February 7. All 12 games will be held in Maracay and Valencia, Venezuela.

The other league champions include the Licey Tigres, representing the Dominican Republic, and the defending champions, the Mazatlan Venados (Deer) of the Mexican Pacific League. The fourth participant, representing Puerto Rico, is St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina's Carolina Gigantes (Giants).

In Venezuela, Caracas defeated Aragua in their best-of-seven, head-to-head finals series, four games to one. Their clinching victory was secured by a 5-1 score on Sunday.

Two Cardinals youngsters were on the losing Aragua squad – infielder Milko Jaramillo and pitcher Victor Moreno. Hurler Jackson Paz and infielder Juan Lucena also made cameo regular season appearances for the Tigres.

Recognizable names on the Leones include Carlos Guillen (Detroit), Marco Scutaro (Oakland), Alex Gonzalez (free agent), Henry Blanco (Cubs) and relievers Francisco Rodriguez (Angels) and Jorge Julio (Mets).

Licey, the pride of Dominican baseball, is no stranger to the postseason, as they proudly display 19 Dominican championship banners and are nine-time winners of the Caribbean Series. They defeated Las Aguilas Cibaenas (Cibao Eagles) five games to two in their seven-game finals series, which concluded last week.

Cardinal lefty Carmen Cali pitched for Licey during the regular season, but completed his stint prior to the playoffs. Infielder Hector Luna appeared briefly for Las Aguilas earlier this winter.

Familiar names on the Licey roster include Ronnie Belliard (Cleveland) and Timo Perez (White Sox), top prospects Erick Aybar (Angels) and Hanley Ramirez (Florida) plus pitchers Juan Cruz (Oakland), Valerio de los Santos (Washington) and Jorge Sosa (Atlanta).

Mazatlan, last year's Caribbean Series host and winner, defeated Guasave four games to one in their best-of-seven series to repeat as Mexican champion. Earlier in the regular season, Cardinals prospects Chris Duncan and Todd Worrell played for Mazatlan, but each returned home prior to the playoffs.

The Deer lack household names. Miguel Ojeda, Edgar Gonzalez and Ray Sadler are among the perhaps best-known Deer who competed in the finals.

But, the big news for Cardinals fans is Yadier Molina and his Carolina mates. They defeated the Ponce Leones five games to three in the best-of-nine game finals to become Puerto Rico's 2005-2006 champion.

The Gigantes feature Javier Valentin (Cincinnati) and Ruben Gotay (Kansas City) plus pitcher J.C. Romero (Angels). And, of course, there's Molina.

After performing at designated hitter much of the winter season, Molina has seen regular duty for the Gigantes behind the plate in the playoffs. His two errors in the box scores indicate not all has gone well, however.

In the Puerto Rican finals, Molina batted .231 in 37 at-bats. He had five RBI and four of his nine hits were doubles. Molina drew four walks and fanned four times. His on-base percentage was .326 and his slugging percentage as .333.

Molina's regular catching duty has occurred despite concerns expressed earlier this winter by Cardinals management. Yet, I can understand Molina's desire to represent his country in the Series.

However, I can also see where the Cardinals are coming from. Molina has been playing ball virtually non-stop since coming up to the Cardinals during 2004. He also competed for Carolina a year ago along with a former pitching prospect named Rick Ankiel.

Molina will have precious little time to rest up. The 23-year-old is due to report to Cardinals spring training camp in Jupiter just nine days following the conclusion of the Caribbean Series. He can't get too comfortable with his new batterymates, though. Molina will soon pack up again to join Jose Oquendo's Puerto Rican team competing in March's World Baseball Classic, before rejoining the Cardinals later that month.

Statistical details of all Cardinals farmhands playing winter ball are included in the subscription story "Winter Ball Update – January 24".

Be aware that roster changes may be coming on one of more of the Caribbean Series combatants. Traditionally, the teams entering the Series augment their rosters with some of the best players from their vanquished foes, giving the Series sort of an All-Star flavor.

Footnote: One of those roster changes occurred before the Series began as Molina opted out. He was replaced behind the plate for Puerto Rico by John Pachot.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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