In one of the best Cinderella stories in international baseball history, Brazil shut out Panama 1-0 to win the sixteenth and final spot in the World Baseball Classic Tournament in March.
The Brazilian National Team was ranked as the 26th best international team coming into the tournament and was a heavy underdog in a very competitive qualifier with Nicaragua, Panama and Colombia, who were ranked 14th, 15th and 19th respectively. Panama could also boast of several major league players including Carlos Ruiz as well as rising stars like Ruben Tejada. Brazil only had one major league player, catcher Yan Gomes. But Brazil put together a scrappy team of players mostly from the low minors. They hired Hall of Famer Barry Larkin to manage them and built a team around pitching and defense.like Carlos Lee and
Brazilian starter Rafael Fernandes pitched for the NPB Yakult Swallows in 2012, mostly for their minor league team but he did pitch nine games with the big club. Panama countered with Angel Cuan, who had a 4.01 ERA over 21 starts and 114 innings for the High-A St. Lucie Mets.
Fernandes allowed a single in the first inning to Carlos Ruiz and a single in the second inning to Ruben Rivera. That would be the only hits that Panama would get before the ninth inning. But Panama had a chance to score in the top of the third when Fernandes issued a two-out walk to left fielder Isaias Velasquez, who played for the Rays Double-A team in Montgomery the past two seasons. Ruben Tejada came up next and hit a high pop up that Brazilian second baseman that Phillies prospect Lucas Rojo misplayed and dropped. But then Velasquez ran through the stop sign at third base and tried to score on the play. He was easily tagged out at home.
Brazil got their one run in the bottom of the third when they put together four straight singles with one out. Yan Gomes plated Royals minor leaguer Paulo Orlando with a bloop hit to center, and then Reinaldo Sato hit another bloop single to right to load the bases with one out. But Cuan then struck out the next two batters to end the threat and keep Panama to only one run.
From then, Brazil's pitching took over. Fernandes went six innings and allowed only two hits and a walk. He struck out two before giving way to Astros prospect Murilo Gouvea, who had dominated Panama in their first meeting in the tournament. Gouvea retired the side in order in the seventh and eighth inning before walking Velasquez to lead-off the ninth. After a sacrifice bunt by Ruben Tejada, Gouvea exited with a man on second, one out, in a 1-0 game.
Gouvea gave way to Thyago Viera, who pitched in rookie ball in Venezuela for the Mariners this past season. Carlos Ruiz greeted him with a single to left field for Panama's first hit since the second inning, putting runners on first and third with one out. Viera (did I mention his ERA was over six in rookie ball this year?) then struck out Carlos Lee and Ruben Rivera to end the game.
Brazil outhit Panama ten to three, but were unable to get a hit that would score that second run.
Third baseman Leonardo Reginatto was 3 for 4 for Brazil. First baseman Daniel Matsumoto was 2 for 4. Center fielder Paulo Orlando went 2 for 4 and scored the lone run of the game.
Fernandes got the win and Viera the save.
Carlos Ruiz went 2 for 4 for Panama.
To say this game was a thriller is an understatement. It was a one-game playoff where the winner advanced and the loser went home and it was tight the whole way. There were great story lines with inexperienced young players taking on major league veterans and winning. It was about as good an argument for the existence of the World Baseball Classic that you could make. If this is a taste of what the big tournament in March is going to be, baseball fans will be in for a real treat.