By Gabriel Fidler (@gabrielfidler)
MARYVILLE, Tenn. – If there were any doubts whether Brazil is ready for the international baseball spotlight, Barry Larkin’s squad has now erased them. Rafael Fernandes and two Brazilian relievers dominated Panamá’s loaded MLB lineup and the blue-and-gold strung together enough hits for a 1-0 victory in the final qualifying game for the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Both squads had a single in each of the first two innings, but Panamá’s Ángel Cuan and Fernandes both looked strong. The Panamanians, batting as the visitors in their own stadium thanks to Brazil’s undefeated record, had their first scoring opportunity in the third inning.
With two outs, Isaías Velásquez, Panamá’s dynamic leadoff hitter, worked a walk. Fernandes induced what should have been the third out on a popup to second, but it was dropped by Lucas Rojo. Velásquez had been running on the pitch and, ignoring the stop signal at third, raced home, where a throw from Rojo to Yan Gomes greeted him. Gomes tossed to third baseman Leonardo Reginatto, who tagged out Velásquez as packed Rod Carew Stadium groaned in disappointment.
Brazil would ensure that their rally in the bottom of the frame was successful. With one out, Paulo Orlando singled down the left field line and Reginatto blooped a single to center. Yan Gomes followed with a drifting popup to left center, but it dropped over the second baseman’s head and Orlando crossed home.
Reinaldo Sato followed with a similar ball over the first baseman’s head and the blue-and-gold had the bases loaded. Cuan struck out Daniel Matsumoto before running the count full on J.C. Múñiz. On the seventh offering by Cuan, Múñiz went down on strikes as well.
Fernandes and Cuan both sent their opponents down 1-2-3 in the fourth, with Cuan running his streak to four of innings ended with a punch out. Fernandes had another three up, three down inning in the sixth, while Cuan was knocked out of the game after allowing two hits to open the frame.
Orlando was the first, reaching on another bloop hit to the outfield and moving up on a safety by Reginatto. Ramiro Mendoza came in from the bullpen, and silenced a Brazilian offence that had accrued eight hits through the first four frames. Mendoza put his famed sinker to work and induced a double play from Gomes and got Sato to ground out softly to first.
Panamá put a runner on via error in the sixth, but Fernandes once more cruised through the frame before exiting. He did not allow a hit after the fifth batter of the contest and set down eight in-a-row in the middle innings.
The blue-and-gold put two runners on with no outs again in the sixth, but this time Mendoza bailed himself out of the predicament on a ground ball. Iago Januario, a giant in the box at 6-foot-6, tapped meekly into a 4-6-3 double play and Panamá escaped another jam.
Both sides had six straight outs in the seventh and eighth innings before Panamá had one final chance in the final frame. Velásquez led off the inning, and was hit by the third pitch from Gouvea, who had retired the last six batters. However, home plate umpire Ángel Campos ruled correctly that Velásquez leaned into the pitch, and it went down as ball one.
Velásquez worked the count full before drawing a walk, much to the satisfaction of the more than 10,000 Panamanian fans. Rubén Tejada dropped a bunt down to move Velásquez over and Gouvea was pulled in favour of Thiago Vieira.
Carlos Ruiz followed with a line drive to left field and the frenzy of Panamá’s fans reached a new level. Vieira, only 19, next faced Carlos Lee, who had blasted a ball to the warning track in dead center in his last at bat. Vieira got two quick strikes on Lee before running the count full. On the seventh pitch of the at bat, Vieira got Lee on a breaking pitch that was outside of the zone.
It was then Rubén Rivera’s turn and Vieira battled him for six pitches before sending him down swinging. Brazil erupted from their dugout, flags held aloft, and mobbed the mound, while Rod Carew Stadium sat in stunned, if not entirely quiet, silence.
Brazil, ranked 13 spots below No. 15 Panamá in the world rankings, punched their ticket to the main draw of the World Baseball Classic. The blue-and-gold was expected to be competitive, but no one expected them to advance past Panamá, Nicaragua, and Colómbia, all featuring multiple major leaguers.
Instead, Brazil’s mixture of minor leaguers, collegiate players, and Gomes posted the fourth-best average among the four qualifying pools at .316. Fernandes was one of four Brazilian pitchers who tossed more than two innings without allowing a run for a staff that had a 0.67 ERA. He earned the win, Gouvea his second hold, and Vieira notched save number two.
Cuan took the loss despite four strong innings in which he walked no one and whiffed six. Mendoza added another 3 2/3 shutout frames to his ledger, running his line to 8 2/3 scoreless innings in the tournament, allowing only four baserunners. Manny Acosta struck out the final batter in the eighth.
The winners had 10 hits in the championship game, led by Reginatto, who had three in improving his average for the tournament to .583. Orlando and Matsumoto each had a brace of safeties, as did Ruiz for the losers. Panamá had only three hits and two walks in the contest.
Brazil will await the announcement of which Classic pool they will join in March. The first round begins on Mar. 2 in Asia and Mar. 7 in the Americas. Stay tuned towww.worldbaseballclassic.com for video of all games.