The Panama City Qualifiers for the 2023 World Baseball Classic were held between Friday, September 30 and Wednesday, October 5, and host country Panama and Nicaragua claimed the 19th and 20th spots in the 20-team WBC. It is the third trip to the WBC for Panama, but it’s the first time that they emerged from the qualifying rounds since qualifiers started with the 2013 WBC. It is the first ever trip for the Nicaraguan national team.
The format for the qualifying round was a double-elimination tournament with six teams. New Zealand, Brazil, Pakistan and Argentina faced off in the first round of the qualifier and the right to face Panama and Nicaragua, who were given first-round byes.
In that first round, Brazil topped New Zealand 12-7 and Argentina won the first game they ever played in WBC Qualifying with a 7-4 win over Pakistan.
Brazil moved on to face Nicaragua, and Brazil handled them 4-1 behind a 3 for 3 with a double and two walks game by former Twins minor leaguer Leonardo Reginatto, who played as high as Triple-A Rochester in 2017 and 2018.
Meanwhile, Panama gave Argentina a rude awakening with an 11-0 rout that ended after seven innings by the mercy rule. Former major leaguer Humberto Mejía started and got the win while Dodgers minor leaguer Jose Ramos homered for Panama. Ramos is the 8th-ranked prospect for Los Angeles according to MLB Pipeline.
Nicaragua got sent back to the losers bracket where they easily handed Pakistan 12-0 in a game that also ended after seven innings. Former Royals infielder Cheslor Cuthbert opened the scoring with an RBI double in the first inning and former Rays minor leaguer Isaac Bernard hit a three-run home run in the fourth.
Meanwhile, Argentina kept their impossible dream alive with a 4-1 win over New Zealand.
Nicaragua and Argentina then faced off in what might have been the best game of the tournament, a 6-5 win by Nicaragua. This eliminated the Argentines, but it was a terrific showing by a country in their first WBC qualifying tournament ever, especially for one without much of a baseball tradition and only a few players with any experience in the minor leagues. Only three players on the Argentina roster were born outside of that South American country.
Panama then faced Brazil with the 19th spot in the WBC on the line. The Panamanians threw their ace, former Rangers and Mets pitcher Ariel Jurado to the mound and he completely outclassed the Brazilians as Panama won 4-0 to earn a bid to the 2023 WBC. Brazil only managed one hit off of Jurado, an infield single by Athletics first baseman Christian Lopes. The only other baserunner Jurado surrendered was a hit batsman in the sixth inning, after which he departed the game after 5.1 innings. Meanwhile, Jorge Ramos homered again with a man on for Panama and Mexican Leaguer Edgar Munoz also homered. Former Padres shortstop Allen Córdoba (currently in Triple-A with the Reds) also chipped in an RBI single. Brazil only had three hits total in this game.
That left one spot in the WBC and one game, a rematch between Nicaragua and Brazil. This time, Nicaraguan starter and former Blue Jays minor leaguer Osman Gutierrez outdueled Brazil’s starter and current Astros minor leaguer Heitor Tokar. Gutierrez won his second game of the tournament with six scoreless innings while Tokar allowed two runs in the top of the first. Nicaragua would go on to win 3-1 and claim the 20th and final spot in the 2023 WBC. Reds minor leaguer Steven Leyton, who played for the Triple-A Louisville Bats this past season, had three hits for Nicaragua in the final game.
So now the largest World Baseball Classic field ever is set, as the four teams that qualified this past month join the 16 teams that competed in the 2017 tournament, who all automatically qualified. The tourney will start on March 8, 2023 with the 20 teams divided into pools of five in four different locations: Taichung (Chinese Taipei), Tokyo, Miami and Phoenix. This fifth WBC tournament was delayed for two years because of the COVID pandemic, so the teams should be ready to go. The United States is the defending champion, but Japan has won the tournament twice and the Dominican Republic once.