Colombia stuns Mexico in extras to take thrilling Pool C opener

March 12th, 2023

PHOENIX – Just hours before Colombia took the diamond for its opening contest of the 2023 World Baseball Classic, manager Jolbert Cabrera talked about how excited he was to see his mostly youthful squad in action. As he finished his session, he stopped right before he left the room to ask who would come in first postgame: the winning manager or the losing manager?

When told the skipper on the wrong side of the scoreboard would come in first, Cabrera replied:

“OK, you’re going to see the Mexico manager first.”

That confidence emanating from Cabrera was rewarded by his upstart group, which knocked off Mexico, 5-4, in a scintillating extra-innings affair Saturday afternoon at Chase Field to open Pool C play.

The biggest reason that Cabrera came in the room second postgame was due to the heroics of first baseman Reynaldo Rodriguez, who delivered two key knocks to spur Colombia to victory. In front of a raucous mostly pro-Mexico crowd, Rodriguez twice quieted the majority of those in attendance with a two-run homer in the fifth and an RBI single in the seventh.

Rodriguez’s presence in the Colombia lineup almost never happened. The 36-year-old veteran hasn’t appeared in affiliate ball since 2016, but he has spent three of the past four years playing for Tigres de Quintana Roo in the Mexican League. He suited up for Mexico in the Caribbean Series in February and was happy to spend time at home.

But then, his daughter was born.

Citing her arrival as the impetus, Rodriguez reversed track, and when he got the call from Colombia a week ago, he accepted to don the colors of his homeland.

That love for Colombia was on full display in the top of the fifth when he turned on an inside fastball off the plate from Mexico ace Julio Urías, whom he spent three days studying via video to prepare. After flying out on a slurve in the first pitch of his at-bat in the second inning against Urías, who retired the first 12 batters he faced in the game, Rodriguez was still hunting that heater.

“I was just there searching for pitches,” Rodriguez said via an interpreter. “Where he threw it, that’s my zone.”

Once the ball bounced off the screen of the foul pole, Rodriguez, a native of Cartagena, sent the dugout and likely most of the north coast of his home country into a frenzy. As he ran up the first-base line, he motioned to what brought him to this moment: ‘Colombia.’

Mexico had a homer celebration of its own in the bottom of the frame as Randy Arozarena ripped a game-tying blast to left field off the bat at 112.5 mph, nearly lifting the roof off Chase Field.

The clubs traded RBI singles by Rodriguez and Alex Verdugo in the seventh to reach the ninth tied at 4. When Arozarena, the 2021 AL Rookie of the Year, came to the dish with the winning run at second, Colombia gave him a free pass, much to the jeers of the Mexican fans in attendance.

But passing on Arozarena for Verdugo was all part of the plan for Cabrera, who deftly managed his relief corps. On the mound was right-hander Guillermo Zuñiga, who scuffled mightily against left-handed batters (1.062 OPS) last season at Double-A Tulsa in the Dodgers’ organization.

Zuñiga threw Verdugo three pitches: 100.8, 100.3, 102 mph. Strike one, strike two, strike three.

“He showed a lot of heart,” Cabrera said of Zuñiga. ”Unbelievable performance by that kid. You’re going to see a lot of him starting today.”

After Colombia pushed the go-ahead run across in the 10th on a fielding error by Mexico, there was no hesitation about who was pitching the bottom of the frame in an attempt to seal a potentially narrative changing victory for the country from the northwest of South America.

“We had a conversation yesterday during practice and I told him he was going to be the man and he was going to take us to the next level,” Cabrera said. “Because we’ve never had a guy like that before.”

Up just one run with the automatic runner at second, Zuñiga mowed through the 3-4-5 hitters in the Mexico order, ending the game with his fourth strikeout over his two scoreless frames.

The victory immediately thrusts Colombia into contention for one of the two quarterfinal spots that will be earned during Pool C play. They lost twice during the 2017 Classic, but both instances came in extra innings against powerhouse United States and Dominican Republic teams.

But six years later, Colombia conquered the extras hurdle it had previously found insurmountable.

"It just reaffirmed that our baseball, Colombian baseball, continues to grow," Cabrera said, visibly emotional after talking with his team. "These kids are unbelievable. They're so talented. Like I said before, they are fearless. They are fearless. And they are going to play their heart out, day in and day out. That's what we're all about."

Colombia returns to action Monday at 3 p.m. ET against Great Britain on FS2. Mexico gets a little over 24 hours off before a collision with the heavily favored United States squad, which gets underway at 10 p.m. ET on Sunday on FS1.