Baseball's arms race starts in Venezuela

When he became the first Venezuelan to pitch in the major leagues nearly seven decades ago, Alex Carrasquel was more baseball novelty than baseball nobility.

And Carrasquel's modest debut -- he went 5-9 for the Washington Senators in 1939, the first of his eight seasons -- hardly opened a floodgate for Venezuelan pitching talent in the major leagues, leaving the uncle of four-time All-Star shortstop Chico Carrasquel better remembered for his relatives than his record.

In fact, not until 1980 were as many as three Venezuelans -- Cincinnati's Manny Sarmiento, Boston's Luis Aponte and Toronto's Luis Leal -- pitching regularly in the majors at the same time. And it wasn't until 1991, when Wilson Alvarez threw a no-hitter in his second start, that Venezuelan pitchers began to attract national attention.

But the seed that Alex Carrasquel planted 67 years ago is in full bloom this summer. With a little more than two weeks left in the season, Minnesota's Johan Santana leads the majors in wins, strikeouts and ERA and is on pace to win his second American League Cy Young award in three seasons. The Cubs' Carlos Zambrano, meanwhile, is among the favorites to win the NL award.

Plus, Francisco Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Angels leads the majors in saves, and Santana, his Twins' teammate Carlos Silva and the White Sox's Freddy Garcia figure to have major impacts on the races for American League Central and wild-card playoff berths. On Wednesday, Garcia came within four outs of a perfect game in leading the White Sox to a critical victory over the Angels.

Last week, Florida Marlins rookie Anibal Sanchez no-hit the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 13th start of his career, which ended the longest no-hitter drought in baseball history.

Suddenly, the place Christopher Columbus called "the land of grace'' has become fertile ground for big-league pitchers.

"It doesn't surprise me at all,'' Santana says. "[The talent] has always been there."

True, no doubt. But it took the academy system, started by Houston Astros super-scout Andres Reiner in 1989, to develop it for the majors. Before Reiner opened his first development academy, only 55 Venezuelans had appeared in major league games. Last April, there were 43 Venezuelans on opening-day rosters alone, and nearly 1,000 played professional baseball under contract to major league teams at some level this summer.

"It's made the biggest improvement in baseball in Venezuela," says Santana, a product of the academy system whom Reiner signed following a backbreaking 12-hour drive up the spine of the Venezuelan Andes. "That's why you see so many players now, from catchers to pitchers. In Venezuela, you always talk about shortstops and defensive players.

"Now you talk about pitchers."

And that conversation no longer starts and stops with Santana, who, arguably, is the best pitcher in the game right now.

Zambrano, though he's been limited by injury to just 1 1/3 innings this month, still ranks among the National League leaders in wins, strikeouts and earned run average, and has the lowest opponent's batting average in the NL. And the Angels' Rodriguez has blown just three of 44 save chances while posting a 1.73 ERA and becoming, at 24, the youngest pitcher in history to earn 100 saves.

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