PANAMA CITY, Panama -- The home crowd was treated to The Chooch Show at Rod Carew Stadium on Thursday night.Playing in front of 11,744 spirited fans, Panama catcher Carlos "Chooch" Ruiz hit two home runs and collected four RBIs to lead his squad to a 9-2 win over France in
PANAMA CITY, Panama -- The home crowd was treated to The Chooch Show at Rod Carew Stadium on Thursday night.
Playing in front of 11,744 spirited fans, Panama catcher Carlos "Chooch" Ruiz hit two home runs and collected four RBIs to lead his squad to a 9-2 win over France in the first round of the World Baseball Classic qualifier. After opening the game's scoring with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the first, Ruiz hit a solo moonshot in the third and then a two-run blast in the fifth.
Panama is now set to host Colombia -- which defeated Spain, 9-2 -- at 9 p.m. ET on Friday. Spain will face France at 2 p.m. ET in an elimination game earlier in the day. In qualifier games played in Mexicali, Mexico, the hosts defeated the Czech Republic, 2-1, and Nicaragua walked off over Germany. The Czechs and Germans will meet in an elimination game at 3:30 p.m. ET Friday, and Mexico takes on Spain at 10:30 p.m. All qualifier action can be watched on MLB.com and www.worldbaseballclassic.com, or followed via MLB Gameday.
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Playing in his fourth WBC competition with Panama, Ruiz showed why he's been able to stay in the big leagues for a decade.
"It's all about being positive," Ruiz said through a translator. "I believe I'm still a young player. I feel like a 26-year-old, not a 36-year-old. I'm proud to play with a team that has young players and such an experienced coaching staff -- especially guys I played with like [manager] Carlos Lee, [bench coach] Olmedo Saenz and [pitching coach] Lenin Picota."
Once Lee saw Ruiz join Team Panama from Phillies Spring Training earlier this week, he had a feeling he would be doing some damage at the plate.
"Honestly, that's the best shape I've ever seen him in," Lee said. "He's ready to go, and you can see it. He's taking good swings, taking good pitches. Two homers, that's not going to happen every day. But if you put yourself in a position to have good swings, good results can come out."
While Ruiz stole the spotlight on Thursday night, Panama right-hander Paolo Espino pitched a perfect three innings, striking out four, to begin the contest. The Nationals farmhand only needed 33 pitches to get through his outing, so he'll be eligible to return to the mound on Saturday if Lee desires.
Espino said everything was working well for him on the mound -- location, fastball command and his slider -- and that he only threw one changeup. By the time Lee made a pitching change, though, Panama had a four-run lead, so Espino was held back with the future in mind. Panama is guaranteed to play on Saturday, win or lose on Friday, and Espino would have been ineligible to pitch the rest of the qualifier had he surpassed 50 pitches.
Naturally, Espino wanted to keep going deeper in the game but understood Lee's decision given the pitch limits. And on a night that belonged to Ruiz, perhaps it's no surprise that Espino chalked up his success to his catcher.
"I think Carlos Ruiz makes a big difference for our pitching staff," Espino said through a translator. "I've known him for a long time, and he has a lot of experience. Today he called a great game, and I just tried to match him pitch for pitch, whatever he asked for."
Panama broke open the game with a four-run sixth inning. Following Ruiz's two-run homer, Carlos Quiroz nearly went back-to-back, but his double bounced off the top of the wall in left field. No matter, as the next batter, shortstop Javier Guerra, went deep to right field to extend Panama's lead to seven runs.
France didn't do itself any favors, committing three costly errors that led to three runs for Panama. In the second inning, on consecutive at-bats, shortstop Felix Brown booted a ball and left fielder Douglas Rodriguez dropped a routine fly. The miscues led to a sacrifice bunt and subsequently a two-run single by Eduardo Thomas. In the sixth inning, Norbert Jongerius dropped a fly ball in left field, allowing Luis Castillo to score.
"We can't compete that way if we make errors," France manager Eric Gagne said. "We know we've got to play better defensively. Pitching was OK, but we can't make mistakes. We've got one guy who's affiliated, and he's in A ball, so we've got to make good plays. But there's a lot of positives. A lot of guys have probably never seen 90 mph in their life, so it's a good experience."
France's first run came in the top of the fifth, when Frederic Hanvi roped a double down the left-field line to score Andy Paz. Jorge Hereaud drove home a second run in the ninth with a soft single to right field.
Alex Espinoza is a contributor to MLB.com.