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AMA CITY, Panama -- Panama entered Thursday night as the favorite. The team had its hometown crowd, a host of players with Major League careers and more experience in the World Baseball Classic.
Brazil didn't seem to care.
In the opening contest of the World Baseball Classic qualifier, Brazil claimed a 3-2 win over Panama with a shutdown effort from its bullpen. Astros prospect Murilo Gouvea starred on the mound in relief for Brazil, retiring the first 10 batters he faced en route to turning in 3 1/3 scoreless innings.
It was a historical win for Brazil, which is participating in its first Classic. Outfielder Paulo Orlando even arrived for his postgame news conference draped in the Brazilian flag.
"I know the country of Brazil is watching," Brazil manager Barry Larkin said. "This is an important tournament for baseball in the fact that Brazil has its first Major League Baseball player in Yan Gomes, and there are many more that are going to be coming. As far as the way that we played today, I think this is significant for the country, for the future of baseball, and I know all Brasileiros are very proud tonight."
It wasn't hard to detect the passion of the Brazilian team following the upset victory. Closer Thyago Vieira, who tossed a shutout ninth inning, threw his glove into the air after forcing Isaias Velasquez into a game-ending popout to left field.
"I'm very proud of our guys," Larkin said. "I thought we played a pretty clean game late in the ballgame. I think early we had some nerves going on, but we stuck with our program. I think our pitchers did an incredible job, we grinded out some pretty good at-bats and just very proud of our effort today."
The game reached fever pitch in the bottom of the eighth inning, when Phillies All-Star catcher Carlos Ruiz and free agent Carlos Lee recorded back-to-back singles for Panama, chasing Gouvea from the mound. The crowd rose to its feet in support of the host country, but Kesley Kondo recorded two straight groundouts to kill the threat.
But the premier pitcher of the evening was undoubtedly Gouvea, who kept the powerful Panama lineup quiet.
"I tried to pitch low in the strike zone, and I was able to mix up all of my pitches, inside and outside," Gouvea said.
White Sox farmhand Andre Rienzo got the starting nod for Brazil but was shaky. Panama scored the game's initial run in the second inning, taking advantage of a wild pitch by Rienzo. Ruben Rivera advanced to second base on a wild pitch during Jose Macias' at-bat, and came around to score two pitches later when Macias lined one into center field for an RBI single.
But Brazil answered right back with two runs in the third.
Orlando drilled a one-out triple over Rivera's head in center field and scored on a single to left by Leonardo Reginatto. Brazil took a 2-1 lead on the next at-bat, taking advantage of some sloppy defense by Lee at first base. Daniel Matsumoto hit a dribbler to Panama starter Paolo Espino, whose toss to Lee was mishandled, allowing Reginatto to score.
But the Brazil lead was short-lived. Panama evened the score at 2 when Ruiz hit a sacrifice fly to center field to drive home Velasquez in the bottom of the inning.
The score remained tied until the fifth, when Juan Carlos Muniz singled home Reginatto to make it 3-2. Gomes was thrown out at home on the play, but Reginatto's run proved to be the game-winner.
"We know that the Panamanian team has a lot of big league players," Larkin said. "We have a lot of respect for them. They didn't play a poor ballgame, but obviously someone has to win and someone has to lose."
With the defeat, Panama needs to win on Saturday and Sunday in order to reach the qualifier's final. Brazil, meanwhile, can secure a trip to Monday's final with a victory over either Nicaragua or Colombia on Saturday afternoon (2 p.m. ET).
"It's a tough loss," Panama manager Roberto Kelly said. "You want to come out and win the first game, especially since we've only got three games to play, it's a short tournament. Obviously, you don't want to start with your back against the wall.
"Unfortunately, we just couldn't get that hit. We just couldn't get that hit when we needed it and in this game if you don't do that, the opposite team is going to do it, which they did."