PANAMA CITY, Panama -- It came two days later than they would have liked, but Panamanian fans had a victory to celebrate on Saturday night at Rod Carew Stadium. Better yet they'll have a chance to watch their national team play at least one more time in the Panama World Baseball Classic qualifier.
Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada led the offensive attack with three doubles, as Panama claimed a 6-2 victory to knock Nicaragua out of the tournament. Panama will play in the qualifier's second elimination match on Sunday against Colombia, and you can watch live for free on worldbaseballclassic.com.
"It's a big win," Panama manager Roberto Kelly said. "Obviously, its the first win in the Baseball Classic and I think the fans were waiting for it, they deserve it. I'm happy for the team, I'm happy for the country."
Panama opened the tournament with a disappointing 3-2 loss to Brazil on Thursday night, but escaped a tightly-contested battle with its Central American neighbor on Saturday. The hometown fans had high expectations for their team, which is stocked with the most Major League Baseball experience in the qualifier field.
Tejada did his part to show why he's considered to be one of Panama's top talents.
It started in the first inning, as Tejada followed up an Isaias Velasquez leadoff walk by roping a double that landed just fair inside the right field line. Then came his at-bat in the fourth inning, when he drilled one to the left-field gap, driving Velasquez in for another run. For his final act, the 23-year-old Tejada doubled down the right field line again, before coming around to score the game's final run on a single by Luis Castillo.
"Tejada had a tremendous game," Kelly said.
Phillies All-Star catcher Carlos Ruiz also showed off his skills behind the plate, throwing out two base runners at second base in the early going. Mets reliever Manny Acosta got into the act, too, tossing a 1-2-3 ninth inning to close out the game.
In between Tejada's trips to the plate, some of his lesser-known teammates had some highlights of their own. They also took advantage of some poor Nicaraguan defense in the early stages.
Panama took a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the second, when Jeffer Patino laid down a sacrifice bunt and Nicaragua starter Edgar Ramirez threw the ball into left field, allowing Angel Chavez to score. Third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert committed Nicaragua's next error in the fourth inning, when his throw to first sailed wide and let Concepcion Rodriguez reach third. Pattino made Ramirez pay on the next pitch, sending a sacrifice fly into left field to make it 3-0.
Rodriguez (3-for-3 with a walk and run scored) and Pattino, the team's No. 8 and 9 hitters, respectively, were two of the best hitters on the evening.
"We still got a lot of work to do ahead of us," Kelly said. "I just hope the guys come out tomorrow with the same enthusiasm and we can go out there and get the runs, get the key hits and the pitching can hold the way it's been doing thus far.
Panama received a solid start from southpaw Eliecer Navarro. The 25-year-old, who spent the 2012 season with Pittsburgh's High-A affiliate, showed a live arm en route to tossing 3 2/3 shutout innings.
Navarro did a great job of damage control, as he gave up six hits -- all singles -- but still kept Nicaragua's lineup from scoring while walking none and striking out three. Panama's pitching staff has allowed five runs in its first two games and received high praise from Kelly after the game.
"I think our pitching has been our strength," Kelly said. "So hopefully those guys go out there and give us some innings and give us some time for our offense to come through for us."
Following the tournament-ending loss, Dennis Martinez said he would be honored if Nicaragua offered to keep him as the team's manager, citing the young talent on the team. As it is, Nicaragua was the first team to be booted from the four-team field, which also includes upstart Brazil.
"I have no remorse whatsoever," Martinez said. "I just feel happy for them because that was a great experience for them to be able to compete at this level. This is the first opportunity that Nicaragua's involved with this type of tournament.
"I hope that this is a lesson for our country, for our sport in Nicaragua, for baseball to be able to get better; to be able to get a better perspective to see what we need to do and hopefully the next time we participate we can do better."