In a game that had more twists than a pretzel factory and was in doubt until the bottom of the eighth inning, the host and favorite, Australia, advanced to the 2017 World Baseball Classic with a 12-5 win over South Africa.
South Africa got off to a great start to this game as shortstop Gift Ngoepe hit a solo home run off Travis Blackley to start the game. But Australia tied the game up in the bottom of the first when former Dodgers outfielder Trent Oeltjen doubled home a run. A second runner tried to score from first on Oeltjen's double to right, but a perfect relay throw from second baseman Anthony Phillips nailed first baseman Stefan Welch.
The game remained tied 1-1 until the fifth inning when Australians Brad Harman (former Phillies player) and Allan de San Miguel (former Twins farmhand) hit back-to-back solo home runs to give the Southern Thunder a 3-1 lead.
But Australia's lead would be short-lived as catcher Kyle Botha hit a three-run home run in the top of the sixth inning to give South Africa a 4-3 lead. Again though, South Africa couldn't hold a lead as Australia tied the game back up at 4-4 in the bottom of the sixth on a Trent D'Antonio (former Marlins farmhand) double.
South Africa's lack of pitching depth would come through in the later innings as Australia scored twice in the bottom of the seventh to take a 6-4 lead. With a two-run lead in the eighth, Australia manager Jon Deeble turned to his closer, former Cubs farmhand Ryan Searle. Searle started the eighth by allowing a leadoff single to second baseman Anthony Phillips and then walking his brother Jonathan. A soft grounder put runners on second and third and then another ground out scored Anthony Phillips and got South Africa to within a run at 6-5. But Searle got a strikeout to end the threat and keep Australia's narrow 6-5 lead heading to the bottom of the eighth.
South Africa had really overachieved this whole tournament, at least in relation to expectations, but the wheels fell off in the bottom of the eighth. After a leadoff walk, Harman got an infield single after the pitcher failed to cover first base on a grounder. Then third baseman Jonathan Phillips made a bad throw to first base on a bunt, scoring two runs. South Africa would go through four pitchers in the eighth inning, but none could slow down the host country. After all the carnage was over, Australia had scored six runs and led 12-5 going to the ninth. Searle retired South Africa in order to end the game.
With the win, Australia advances to pool play in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Australia has been a participant in each of the previous three tournaments. South Africa has shown real improvement over their team in 2013, but they were unable to prevail over the more experienced Australians and will miss the WBC for the second straight time.
And the winners celebrated.
Two more qualifiers will take place in March, one in Mexicali, Mexico and one in Panama City, Panama.