China used a late rally to stun baseball darlings Brazil and cement their spot in the 2017 World Baseball Classic (WBC). Brazilian relievers walked in three runs in a disastrous eighth inning that gave China a 5-2 victory.
The game started off promisingly for Brazil as start Oscar Nakaoshi looked impressive in his second Classic start. China’s Tao Bu was almost as consistent, but the blue-and-yellow struck first in the second innings.
Daniel Matsumoto was hit by an errant Bu pitch to start the frame and advanced to second on a wild pitch. China caught an unlucky break when J.C. Múñiz struck a soft liner off Bu’s foot which caromed through the shortstop hole while Matsumoto raced around with the first run. Brazil would put another runner on after a Chinese error, but Bu showed his veteran poise in retiring the third out.
China almost evened the score in the bottom of the frame. The hot-hitting Ray Chang ripped a single to deep left centre to lead off the inning. Fujia Chu dropped down a bunt that confused Nakaoshi and third baseman Leonardo Reginatto and Chu beat out what was meant to be a sacrifice.
Wei Wang advanced Chang to third with a long fly to right, but Nakaoshi turned up the heat on the next two batters, striking both out to end the threat.
After exchanging zeroes in the third, Chang gave China another scoring chance in the fourth. The team’s only professional player laced another safety to almost exactly the same spot, but legged out two bases. Chu tried once more to bunt him over, but struck out. Chang moved to third on a wild pitch, but Nakaoshi sent his sixth man of the day down swinging and got a grounder to escape the jam.
Bu would go one inning longer than his opponent before exiting due to pitch count restrictions. He retired the final eight batters he faced, keeping Brazil off-balance with a mixture of breaking pitches and a high-80s/mid-140s fastball. Bu did not walk a batter and collected two strikeouts, failing to go to a three-ball count on a single batter.
After four complete innings, Nakaoshi gave way to Murilo Gouvea, Brazil’s star reliever. Since the start of the WBC in November, Gouvea had thrown 8 2/3 frames and had given up only one run. The right-hander immediately took control against the Chinese lineup.
Gouvea did not allow a hit between the fifth and seventh innings, using a fastball with late movement to blow away the Chinese lineup, hitting the low-90s on several pitches.
In the top of the seventh, Brazil got an insurance run for Gouvea, who looked as if one run would be an impregnable deficit for China to overcome. Tiago Magalhães and Reinaldo Sato started things off with one-base hits against reliever Qingyuan Meng.
The third batter, Múñiz, laid down a perfect bunt toward the third base side of the mound and raced to first, beating out a late throw to load the bases. Diego França scored Magalhães on a grounder and pinch hitter Pedro Okuda walked to load the bases.
New reliever Jiangang Lu, one-of-two veteran hurlers along with Bu, got two consecutive fly balls to left, the first off Paulo Orlando, Brazil’s most experienced hitter.
China could not take advantage in the bottom of the seventh against Gouvea, who picked up two of his strikeouts and needed only nine pitches to finish the frame. Lu also continued his strong work in the eighth, retiring his third through fifth-straight batters.
With both pitchers sailing through the late innings, it appeared that Brazil, who was favoured in the contest, would claim their first guaranteed spot in a Classic. The tone of the contest, however, suddenly altered in the bottom of the eighth.
After retiring six in-a-row, Gouvea gave up an infield single to Weiqiang Meng, but appeared to have righted the ship against the next batter, getting an easy four-pitch strikeout. Brazil’s hurler quickly lost control of the strike zone, walking .111-hitter Xiao Cui on five pitches and then loading the bases on a four-pitch walk to Xu An.
Manager Barry Larkin had seen enough, and called in his closer Thyago Vieira, who was electric against Panamá in November. The 20-year old right-hander entered to face the heart of the order as he had twice in the qualifier. Vieira started off with two balls and then almost hit Lei Li with the third pitch. The concern on his face was obvious, and Larkin stood staring in disbelief in the dugout and Vieira threw a fourth ball to walk in a run.
Next up was Chang, who was 2-for-3 in the game and had the biggest hit in Chinese baseball history in 2009. Chang ripped a three-run homer and two singles to almost singlehandedly defeat Chinese Taipei, but stepped to the plate needing only to push across a single run with one out.
After having been stranded on third to end the second and fourth frames, Chang took matters into his own hands, lining a third consecutive hit to left centre. Cui and An raced home, and China suddenly had its first lead of the 2013 tournament.
Vieira got Chu to erase Chang on a fielder’s choice and needed only one more out to keep the deficit at three. Instead, he hit Wei Wang to reload the bases.
Larkin dipped into the bullpen again, and Hugo Kanabushi took the hill. The southpaw ran the count full against Zhenhong Lu, who was hitless in the Classic before sending him to first on the base on balls. Li scored China’s fourth run, and Kanabushi completed the catastrophe with a four-pitch walk to Meng.
With the bases still loaded and China now up 5-2 despite only two hits in the inning, Larking inserted Daniel Missaki. Missaki, looking every inch of his 16 years of age, did what the others could not do, running a fastball with late-breaking movement on the edge of the plate for a called strike one. After a ball, he got a second strike with the same pitch and then induced a grounder to final end the inning.
All told, China sent 11 men to the plate and drew five free passes and a hit batsman. The three-run lead was more than enough for Lu, who gave up a hit to Sato in the ninth but erased him on a double play, putting an exclamation point on the victory with a strikeout of pinch hitter Alan Fanhoni.
Lu earned the victory with 2 2/3 frames of scoreless relief, scattering a walk and a hit and whiffing a pair. Gouvea, meanwhile, went 3 1/3 innings and surrendered a single hit, but walked three and gave up three hits. He had three Ks.
Chang had three of the red-and-gold’s six safeties. China walked six times, including two by Cui. Sato and Múñiz both had a brace of hits, though Brazil only managed six against what most believed was the thinnest pitching staff in the tournament. Reginatto’s five-game hitting streak ended, though he led Brazil with a .478 average in the WBC. The blue-and-yellow left six runners on base.
China will await their assignment for the 2017 World Baseball Classic, while Brazil will be relegated to the qualifying rounds. After a sweep through the 2012 qualifiers, Brazil’s record in the WBC is now 3-3, while China is 2-7. Stay tuned for news, reviews, and analysis leading up to the next Classic, including all the coverage of this year’s WBC.