Australia books first trip to Classic quarterfinals

March 13th, 2023

TOKYO -- With everything on the line and a chance to reach the second round for the first time in each country’s history, Australia and the Czech Republic turned to their veteran stars. When all was said and done, Australia moved on to the quarterfinals with an 8-3 victory.

The two countries -- far from baseball powerhouses -- leaned on players who have led their countries for nearly 20 years through the successes and heartbreaks of international baseball.

That they were up to the task shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, both teams had players who list their occupation as firefighter.

"Firefighting is a full-time job. I’ve got a wife and two kids. It's a juggle, it's a lot of sacrifice," Australia captain Tim Kennelly told earlier this week. "It's a lot of hard work, but the reason I do it is for these tournaments, is for putting on this jersey, it's for being around the group of guys and the coaching staff. It's the little things like that and the memories that you have playing that pushes you."

“Being a baseball player and being a firefighter, you need the same mentality. It’s connected,” Czech Republic pitcher Martin Schneider told MLB during filming of the “Behind the Flag” documentary. “I need to be mentally strong. I need to believe in my partners, my brothers in here.”

Just as Czech manager Pavel Chadim did in a must-win game against Spain in the Regensburg Qualifiers, he gave the ball to his 37-year-old star Schneider. And like in that tournament, he wasn't initially expected to start. But once again, when asked to step up, Schneider did like he has countless times in the past.

The right-hander relied on expert command, using his mid-80s fastball and slider combination to keep the powerful Australian bats quiet. He pitched 5 1/3 innings and gave up just one run -- an Alex Hall first-inning home run -- one hit and one walk. Naturally, he also struck out only one.

When Chadim entered to take Schneider out of the game, he gave a nod to the Monday afternoon Tokyo Dome crowd and gave his starter a bow.

Australia needed its own firefighting star. Kennelly made an amazing diving catch to rob Czech leadoff hitter Vojtech Mensik of an extra-base hit in the first inning.

In the bottom of the fourth, Czech first baseman Martin Muzik -- who hit the dramatic game-winning home run against China just a few days prior -- hit a deep drive to right field. Kennelly made another great running catch, showing off legs that would belie his 36 years.

"We are going to the quarterfinals. We got the win in the end," Kennelly said. "Tip your cap to the starting pitcher. He did well. We battled and then broke through in the end and piled on a few runs."

Kennelly, who has appeared for the team at the past two World Baseball Classics, helped set the tone for the team until its younger stars could help put the game away.

"Tim Kennelly is one of our captains, so that shows you how much we respect him and how much of an influence and leader he is -- not just with the older guys but with the younger players," manager Dave Nilsson said after the game. "Amongst the coaching staff, we trust him and we talk to him quite often about that."

That defense kept the game tied until Australia’s bats could get to the Czech bullpen. Logan Wade broke the game open with a two-run double in the top of the seventh and reigning ABL MVP Hall added another two-run triple in the eighth to provide insurance.

The Czechs plated a pair of runs in the eighth inning to draw closer, but Kennelly hit an RBI single as the Aussies added to their lead in the ninth.

"Super excited to be part of a team like this, and the boys were very resilient, great at-bats," pitcher Mitch Neunborn, who pitched 2 1/3 innings and struck out five. "We stuck it out, did really well. At the end of the day, we are trying to do something pretty cool here and make some history happen. To go to the quarterfinals and be the first team in the WBC history for Australia is something very, very special.

Australia finished pool play with a 3-1 record and will play Cuba on Wednesday with a spot in the semifinals in Miami on the line. Nilsson brought back his son, Eli, to the news conference, adding to the celebratory atmosphere. Before the team left to join the rest of the staff and their families, the "unofficial batboy" gave his take on the tournament.

"It's been a really fun experience to win, all of what's happened," Eli said. "It's been a really fun journey to be with this team."

With Korea's 22-2 mercy-rule win over China on Monday, the Czechs finished fourth in Pool B and were guaranteed a spot in the 2026 World Baseball Classic -- the nation’s first stated goal when entering the tournament. The Czech Republic had to qualify for this year's World Baseball Classic via the Regensburg Qualifiers in September.

"First, I want to say that I really believe that we showed the way -- not just for European teams, but all small countries," Chadim said. "I am so proud of the guys. We're not finished, this group."

Chadim also wanted to thank many of the coaches and players who helped the Czech Republic reach this point. They may not have moved to the quarterfinals, but this performance was still historic for the country.

"I want to thank you, first to my club coach Geoff Samuels," Chadim said. "He was my coach when the first time we champions with the Brno Dragons in Czech Republic. I want to say thank you to Stan Luketich and Jim Jones -- they were my national team coaches 30 years ago. My last thank you is for Bill Holmberg, a guy from America and Italy, who helped us with our development programs for pitchers and catchers. He died two years ago. He worked for Major League International. This tournament was for him. Thank you, Bill."