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.

Then there are the youngsters -- Seattle's Felix Hernandez, who at age 20 already has 15 major league wins and a shutout; and the Marlins' Sanchez, who beat the Yankees at Yankee Stadium in his major league debut and then no-hit the Diamondbacks two months later.

"Good way to start his career," Santana says of Sanchez. "Hopefully, he keeps everything going."

The son of a delivery truck driver from a poor neighborhood in the north-central city of Maracay, Sanchez might have made the most unusual trip to major league stardom of them all. It was a trip that almost ended before it had much of a chance to start.

Two years after he signed with the Red Sox as a 17-year-old, Sanchez underwent surgery to transpose a nerve in his pitching arm.

"Going through surgery, it's very frustrating," he says. "You think they're going to get rid of you. It was ugly. I prayed a lot."

Prayer -- plus long hours in rehab -- apparently worked, because he came back strong enough to win Pitcher of the Year honors at Lowell of the New York-Penn League in 2004; and then ended 2005 at Double-A Portland, where he struck out 83 batters in 57 1/3 innings.

Dealt to Florida last year in the Thanksgiving Day blockbuster trade that sent Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell to Boston, Sanchez came to spring training intent on winning a spot in the Marlins' rotation. But he was derailed by injury again, as shoulder trouble severely limited his Grapefruit League activity. He started the season in Double-A.

"He was down. But the interesting thing is, the last thing he said to me was 'I'll be back,'" Marlins manager Joe Girardi says. "And the first thing he said to me when he got back was, 'I told you I'd be back.'"

That return came in June, but it too, didn't follow a conventional path. Rained out of a Saturday game at Yankee Stadium, the Marlins needed a minor league starter for Game 2 of the doubleheader they'd play the next day. Yusmeiro Petit, their first choice, had pitched the day before; Renyel Pinto, their second, was already on the mound for Triple-A Albuquerque.

"The plan," says Wayne Rosenthal, the Marlins' minor league pitching coordinator, "was for him to make the start, then go right back down."

Those plans changed when the 22-year-old right-hander shut out the Yankees for 5 2/3 innings, becoming just the second visiting rookie in a decade to win his big-league debut at Yankee Stadium. (Toronto's Gustavo Chacin, on Sept. 20, 2004, is the other.)

Two starts later, he beat Roger Clemens, blanking the Astros on two hits through seven innings, adding to a scoreless inning streak that would reach a franchise rookie-record 23 in a row. Then came the no-hitter, followed by an important wild-card race win over the New York Mets that lifted his record to 8-2 and dropped his ERA to a staff-best 2.96 -- far superior to the 3-6, 3.15 numbers he posted in the minors.

"His stuff has gotten so much better up [in the majors] than it was down there," Rosenthal says of Sanchez, who, with control of four pitches, is the most complete pitcher of the Marlins' four rookie starters. "I saw some games where his fastball command was unbelievable. His slider has gotten so much better. His curveball, his changeup's been dropping.

"So I just see better stuff coming out of his arm. I knew the stuff was there, but he's just letting it happen now instead of trying to force it. He put a lot of pressure on himself to try to get to the big leagues by doing too much. Once he got the call, it was almost like a confidence boost."

In that context, Sanchez is a little like the country he represents. The talent was always there; all he needed was the chance to show it off.

"In Venezuela, there's always been a lot of talent," he says. "It's just that now we're working harder to raise our country's profile. And now there's a lot of young players coming out like Miguel [Cabrera], Felix Hernandez, Francisco Rodriguez, Omar Infante, Ronny Cedeno.

"We've been good, but now we're getting the chance to demonstrate that."

Kevin Baxter is the national baseball writer for The Miami Herald and co-author of "Miracle over Miami: How the 2003 Marlins Shocked the World." He can be reached via e-mail at Gordon Wittenmyer of the St. Paul Pioneer Press also contributed to this story.