Brazil rolls past Colombia to reach qualifier final
PANAMA CITY, Panama -- Perhaps it's safe to say that Brazil doesn't upset opponents anymore. It simply beats them.
Baseball is on the rise in the South American country and they can thank Barry Larkin for it. The 2012 Hall of Fame inductee and national team manager has helped transform the country's baseball program over the past three years, as evidenced by the club's latest eye-opening victory in Panama during the World Baseball Classic qualifier.
Behind a strong start from southpaw Oscar Nakaoshi and some sound situational hitting, Brazil advanced to the final game of the qualifier with a 7-1 win over Colombia on Saturday afternoon at Rod Carew National Stadium.
"I'm very proud of the team, they're playing with a lot of confidence," Larkin said. "The plan is to win. We're in position to win, but we haven't won anything yet. We need to be focused at all times and we know that we have one more game, and we know that we have to win if we want to win it all."
Many would have scoffed if you told them Brazil would be the lone 2-0 team in the Panama field after Saturday's action. Yet, here the team is, just one victory away from reaching the 16-team World Baseball Classic final tournament bracket.
Ranked by IBAF as the No. 28 team in the world entering the qualifier, by far the lowest of any of the four participating teams, Brazil has played a clean brand of baseball that's translated into two quality victories. On Thursday, Brazil opened the tournament with a surprising 3-2 victory over the host country.
Brazil is now set for a Monday matchup with the winner of Sunday's contest between Colombia and the victor of Saturday night's Panama-Nicaragua tilt.
"It's wonderful to see how a team with no stars, really, can go out there and compete," Colombia manager Eduardo Perez said. "It goes to show that if you play good defense and you have good pitching and you run the bases well and you execute, you're going to compete with whomever you're facing. That's what Barry Larkin and his staff and Brazil is doing right now."
Nakaoshi maintained Brazil's string of strong pitching performances with four shutout innings. He navigated through a rocky first inning, escaping a bases-loaded jam via a groundout, before settling down in the last three frames of his outing.
All told, Nakaoshi went four innings, allowing no runs on five hits and two walks while striking out four. For the tournament, Brazil's pitchers have given up just three runs in 18 innings of work.
"We struggled early in the game with our control, our first two pitchers," Larkin said. "But they made pitches when they had to."
Larkin also credited reliever Gabriel Asakura for his work out of the bullpen on Saturday afternoon. Asakura struck out five in his 2 2/3 innings of scoreless work, his only blemishes being a harmless single and a hit batter in the seventh. Sixteen-year-old Daniel Missaki also handled his assignment well, entering the ninth inning with a bases-loaded, one-out situation before getting two pop outs to end the game.
"In order to win, we have to play without mental errors," Larkin said. "When I was working with the pitchers leading up to this tournament, we spent a lot of time talking about the mental aspect of the game."
Perhaps no sequence of Saturday's matinee better illustrated Brazil's development as a baseball country than the run it produced in the sixth inning. Daniel Matsumoto and Juan Carlos Muniz led off the inning with back-to-back walks before advancing on a sacrifice bunt by Felipe Burin. Pinch-hitter Tiago Magalhaes followed it up with a sacrifice fly to left field, scoring Matsumoto and giving Brazil a 3-1 lead.
"Now we're playing well because the team is very focused on the small things," Larkin said. "It's really simple. We have been very consistent in everything that we have done since our starting of getting together. We try to create situations and we talk about the importance of being able to play situational baseball."
Burin opened the game's scoring with an RBI single to right field in the fourth inning that scored Reinaldo Sato. Colombia evened the score in the top of the fifth, when Edgar Renteria scored from second base on a single by Jolbert Cabrera. But that would be the only run Colombia would push across all night.
Brazil took the lead for good in the bottom of the fifth when catcher Yan Gomes singled up the middle to score Leonardo Reginatto, who reached second base with a ringing double. Then the team broke the game open with three runs in the seventh, including an RBI double by Muniz.
Reginatto, who finished 3-for-4 with an RBI, kept up his hot hand in tournament play by driving in the game's final run with a single up the middle, making it 7-1.
"I knew that when we got here, the entire team was very proud," Reginatto said. "Even though the other teams may have bigger names than us, I am very proud that we play as a team. We're stronger in that way."