By Gabriel Fidler (@gabrielfidler)
MARYVILLE, Tenn. – In a wild contest that saw three ejected, Panamá turned back a late comeback by Colómbia and held on for a 9-7 victory. The win means that Panamá will take on Brazil for the right to advance to the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Panamá loaded the bases in the top of the first inning without a hit, but Colómbia’s Karl Lewis Triana twice received fielding help from centerfielder Steve Brown. With two on and one out, Lee launched a drive to deep center field, but Brown arrived just in time for the catch. Two batters later, Brown raced into left center to make a shoestring catch at full speed on a frozen rope by José Macías.
Panamá’s Alberto Acosta got off to a good start in the bottom of the opening frame, striking out two. He allowed a single to Édgar Rentería, who has 2,750 professional hits to lead all players in any qualifier.
The top of the second saw an offensive explosion by Panamá. Ángel Chávez and Concepción Rodríguez led off with singles to knock out Triana. Ronald Ramírez relieved and the runners advanced a base on a sacrifice bunt by Jeffer Patino. Isaías Velásquez hit a long drive to the center field wall and legged out a triple to drive in Chávez and Rodríguez.
Rubén Tejada laid down a perfect squeeze bunt and Velásquez once more flashed his speed and raced home, while Tejada hustled on to first. After a strikeout by Carlos Ruiz, Carlos Lee ripped another drive to dead center, but Brown had no chance on the two-run homer, which landed about 25-30 feet beyond the 400-foot center field wall.
Eduardo Pérez, manager of the Colómbian squad, was unwilling to allow any more damage in the frame, and called for Dumas García, the third reliever of the inning. García gave Brown more work as Rubén Rivera stroked another ball to the middle outfield, but this one was catchable.
Alberto Acosta ensured that any Colombian rally would not occur in the second, sending down the yellow, blue, and red in order, striking out one batter. García equalled that line in the third, while Acosta ran his streak of consecutive batters retired to eight in the bottom of the third.
García would not match him in the fourth, giving up a walk to Pattino, who would score on a single by Ruiz. Ruiz was thrown out at second for the third out after trying to stretch the one-base hit into two.
Acosta ran in to trouble in the fourth, loading the bases on a walk to Rentería, plunking Dónovan Solano, and giving up a single to Jolbert Cabrera. After a sacrifice fly by Jhonatan Solano and a double by Reinaldo Rodríguez, Acosta was pulled for Ernesto Silva. Luís Sierra greeted him with another fly out to left to score a run. Velásquez, the left fielder, also caught the third out one batter later.
Panamá did not score in the top of the fifth, but Colómbia cut the lead to one run in the bottom of the inning. Brown stroked a single to start the rally before Dilson Herrera tapped a tailor-made double play to shortstop, but Patino, the second baseman, dropped the toss to put two on base. Dónovan Solano drove home Brown on a grounder to shortstop and Cabera replicated the out one batter later.
Panamá would get back the run in the sixth. Concepción Rodríguez reached on a base on balls and Pattino moved him over with another bunt. Velásquez drove him home with a single. Tejada stroked a safety one batter later, and Velásquez raced around third, but Brown threw to Dónovan Solano, who flipped to his brother, Jhonatan, to catch Velásquez at home. Ruiz grounded out to end the frame.
Ramiro Mendoza, who came on to stop the Colombian rally in the fifth, needed only eight pitches to retire them an inning later. In the top of the seventh, Panamá would tack on a pair of runs. The first was on a solo shot by Rivera, while Macías and Chávez followed him with safeties. Patino would collect his third sacrifice of the night, this time of the fly out variety, to plate the second run of the frame.
Mendoza was ejected in the bottom of the inning after hitting Brown in the head with a pitch. Manager Roberto Kelly was tossed as it appeared Mendoza may have hit Colómbia’s centerfielder deliberately. Colómbia’s skipper, Eduardo Pérez, had already been removed for arguing in the top of the frame. Euclides Bethancourt came in and settled things down with two fly outs.
Yesid Sálazar, who had come on in the sixth inning, retired all three Panamians he faced in the eighth. Bethancourt inherited a 9-4 lead, but Dónovan Solano and Cabrera led off with singles. With one out, former Colorado Rockies’ closer Manny Corpas entered. Reinaldo Rodríguez welcomed him with a single to score Solano.
Corpas then got the second out, but Giovanny Urshela ripped a double down the left field line to score Cabrera and Rodríguez. Corpas then induced a ground ball out from Brown to end the rally.
Sálazar stayed in to pitch the ninth and finished on a strong note, striking out Rivera and Macías in the frame. Facing a 9-7 deficit, Colómbia had one last chance to rally with the top of the order up in the ninth.
Corpas had other ideas, though, and mowed down Dilson Herrera, Rentería, and Dónovan Solano on nine pitches to preserve the victory. Mendoza earned the win with 2 1/3 dominant frames, allowing no baserunners.
For the losers, Triana took the loss. García and Sálazar were both solid in relief, combining for 7 2/3 frames and giving up six hits, two walks and four runs, striking out five. Reinaldo Rodríguez had two hits and a pair of RBIs, while Cabera had two safeties and crossed home twice.
Three players had a brace of hits for Panamá. Velásquez had two hits, scored a run, and drove in three. Tejada and Chávez also had two base knocks, as the winners reached base 15 times via walk (4) or hit (11).
Panamá, the 15th-best squad in the world rankings, will have its second crack at No. 28 Brazil in their home stadium on Tuesday morning at 1 a.m. GMT. Stay tuned towww.worldbaseballclassic.com for video of all games.