By Gabriel Fidler (@gabrielfidler)
MARYVILLE, Tenn. – Latin America might have a new baseball power. Brazil did the unthinkable on Thursday afternoon, shocking No. 15 Panamá 3-2 in Rod Carew Stadium in the first game of the third World Baseball Classic qualifying pool.
Both nations started right-handers with Triple-A experience, and each looked quite jittery. Neither club scored in the first, despite putting at least one runner on base, but Panamá struck first in the second frame.
Brazil, rated No. 28 in the world, threatened in the top half of the frame, putting two runners on with no out, but Panamá’s Paolo Espino escaped the jam, striking out a pair of Brazilian hitters. In the bottom of the second, former major league Rubén Rivera started things off with a line drive single to left. He advanced to second on a botched pickoff before José Macías drove him home on a one-base hit to center.
Andre Rienzo’s struggles continued, as Macías moved up a base on a passed ball and Rienzo gave out his third free pass to Ángel Chávez. The runners advanced on a sacrifice and Panamá looked ready to strike with two out.
Rienzo finally caught a break, making a nice play on a line drive up the middle and recovering quickly enough to flip the ball to third baseman Leonardo Reginatto for the third out.
No doubt inspired by their hurler’s defensive effort, Brazil turned the tables on the hosts in the third. With one out, Paulo Orlando laced a triple to center field. Reginatto followed him with a grounder up the middle to drive him in, but the blue-and-gold was not finished. Brazil’s star, Yan Gomes, ripped a single to center before Espino got out number two on a strikeout.
A batter later, the Canaleños should have exited the field with a score knotted at one, but Carlos Lee booted a ball which allowed Reginatto to cross the plate with the go-ahead run. That was all for Brazil, who turned the ball back over to Rienzo for the bottom of the third.
Isaías Velásquez started things off with a one-bagger against the still-shaky Rienzo. Velásquez immediately caused trouble for Brazil, stealing second and taking third on a wild pitch. With one out, Philadelphia Phillies’ catcher Carlos Ruiz lofted a ball to Orlando in center field, and Velásquez touched home with the tying run. Rienzo got out of the inning by inducing Lee to tap out to short.
Both starting hurlers worked themselves into jams in their next frame, and each was relieved with two outs. Ernesto Silva took over for Espino, while Rienzo gave way to Noris Chacón.
The top of the fifth spelled more trouble for Panamá. Reginatto, a Tampa Bay Rays minor leaguer, was once again involved. The third baseman walked to lead off the frame and took second on a looper into center by Gomes. Reinaldo Sato, a veteran member of the blue-and-gold, sacrificed the runners over.
Ramiro Mendoza, a veteran of 10 big league seasons and three World Series, was then brought in to snuff out the rally. The right-hander, who last pitched in the majors in 2005, got the second out on a strikeout, and it seemed like Mendoza might right the ship for Panamá.
J.C. Múñiz had other plans, bouncing a ball up-the-middle to drive in Reginatto. Gomes attempted to follow him home, but the center fielder Rivera threw to the infield and caught Lee in a rundown. Shortstop Rubén Tejada took the toss from Lee and flipped to Ruiz, who applied the tag for out number three.
Murilo Gouvea entered for Brazil, and immediately settled in against the heart of the Panamian order. Tejada, José Reyes’ replacement for the New York Mets, flew out, Ruiz struck out on three pitches, and Lee rolled out.
The visitors threatened in the sixth on a double by Brazilian legend Tiago Magalhães, but he was stranded at second with only one down. Gouvea had another three-batter frame, repeating the performance an inning later. He would finish with 3 1/3 shutout innings.
Mendoza stayed in the contest and kept Brazil off the board in his 2 1/3 innings. Brazil could not touch his replacement, Manny Corpas, while Panamá knocked Gouvea out in the bottom of the eighth.
With one down, Ruiz hustled out an infield hit before Lee did the same a batter later. Gouvea was pulled in favour of the University of Utah’s Kesley Kondo, but the surprising move by manager Barry Larkin did the trick. Kondo induced back-to-back grounders to escape the frame.
After Corpas hurled another shutout inning, Brazil was three outs away from their biggest win in recent baseball competition. Brazilian fans were likely trying to avoid memories of the last time the blue-and-gold had a 3-2 lead against a heavily-favoured side. In 2003, Brazil had Cuba down to their last bat in the Baseball World Cup, but Frederich Cepeda, a Cuban legend, ripped a two-run homer in the heart-breaking final frame.
Larkin rolled the dice again, bringing in Thyago Vieira to close out the game. Vieira, only 19, has a 5.55 career minor league ERA and has allowed a .306 average against him. Larkin, however, had once more chosen wisely, as Vieira induced a pop out by Chávez, an infielder for the Houston Astros, before giving up a walk to pinch hitter Jeffer Patino.
With a runner on and one out, Concepción Rodríguez had the chance to play the role of Cepeda, but Vieira mowed him down on strikes. The wily Velásquez batted next, but Brazil earned their first-ever World Baseball Classic victory on a fly ball out to left.
Chacón earned the win after bailing out Rienzo, while Kondo earned a hold and Vieira the save. Rienzo tossed 3 2/3 innings, allowing four hits and five walks, but only one earned run. He struck out one. Brazil’s bullpen totalled 5 1/3 scoreless frames, allowing only two baserunners and whiffing four. Orlando and Gomes both stroked two hits for the winners, while Reginatto reached base twice and scored once.
Silva took the loss for Panamá, which is now winless in six WBC games. Espino lasted 2 2/3 innings, giving up six hits and one earned run. He had three strikeouts. The Canaleñoshad six hitters with a single hit, but left 17 men on base.
Brazil will play the winner of Nicaragua-Colómbia on Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. GMT, while Panamá will try to regroup against the loser in the nightcap, which starts at 1 a.m. GMT on Nov. 18. All games are televised for free at www.worldbaseballclassic.com.