Czechs stun China with clutch 3-run homer in 9th

March 10th, 2023

TOKYO -- Some 200 fans sat behind home plate, decked out in jerseys, caps and flags. They chanted and clapped all game long, singing the name of their home country. They were loud when the Czech Republic -- playing its first World Baseball Classic game in the country’s history -- was winning early, taking a three-run lead against China into the seventh inning. They kept cheering when China came back to take the lead after a series of walks and well-placed singles. 

And when veteran Martin Muzik smashed a moonshot three-run home run to give the small Central European nation the lead en route to an 8-5 victory, you’d be forgiven if you thought there were 2,000 fans back there.

“It's unreal,” Muzik said. “Two hundred people flew from Czech. They flew across the world to watch us and support us. It means a lot for us. They gave us huge energy and pushed us forward. It’s unreal.”

“You saw it in the Regensburg qualifiers, when our fans came to Germany, what kind of noise they were able to make,” right fielder Matej Mensik said. "It’s really awesome that we have them here and they are cheering for us, same as they were in Regensburg. It just makes us play better.”

Considered the underdog of the tournament, this team of firefighters, salesmen and teachers made it clear that while they may have to work day jobs to support themselves, each one is just as much a ballplayer as any other team in this tournament.

“We're normal people off the field, but on the field, we just behave professionally and we take that professionality towards training as well,” shortstop Vojtech Mensik said. “I know it's a great story for you guys, but when it comes to the actual baseball and on-field stuff, we're just as much pros as the other guys.”

Vojtech recorded the first hit in Czech Republic World Baseball Classic history, then scored its first run just a few batters later. His brother, Matej, then hit the first home run for the nation, unable to keep a smile off his face as he rounded the bases.

“I was so happy that I hit a home run,” Mensik said. “I was so happy, it was the biggest joy.” 

“Any home run is great,” Vojtech said, “but especially because my elder brother hit a home run, that made me more happy. I'm so proud of him.”

The Czech Republic took a 4-1 lead into the seventh inning thanks to four no-hit innings from Charleston Southern University pitcher Daniel Padysak and 1 2/3 frames from Regensburg hero Martin Schneider.

Former Pirates and Phillies farmhand Marek Minarek was then brought in to put out the fire. Looking for a double play ball, he nearly got it -- inducing Jin Yang to ground back to the mound. But the ball bounced off the lanky right-hander’s glove, allowing a run to score and China to take its first lead of the day, 5-4.

It appeared that the Czech Republic’s dream tournament may have ended before it ever really began.

“We battled back,” China manager Dean Treanor said after the loss. “We fought last night and we fought today. It would have been very easy for us -- I'm not sure when we got our first hit, the fifth or sixth inning -- but very easy to be down at that point. We've been down in both games. It would have been very easy for us to give up today.

“That's not who team China is, and I think you're seeing that.”

But just as the Czech Republic did in Regensburg, coming from behind to beat Germany and shrugging off a 21-7 defeat to Spain to beat the heavily favored club, 3-1, in the final, the Czech bats came alive in the ninth.

Catcher Martin Cervenka drew a walk, before Matej Mensik doubled to put the go-ahead run on second base. Muzik then stepped to the plate and didn’t give KBO pitcher Kwon Ju anytime to get acclimated on the mound. The first baseman promptly deposited Ju’s first pitch into the left-field seats, sending his teammates and the traveling fans into a frenzy.

“My only concern and my goal was to keep the team alive …” Muzik said. “I didn't want to miss the pitch, so I swung hard. I didn't get a base hit until my last at-bat, so I just concentrated on getting a base hit.”

The victory most likely secures the Czech Republic a place in the 2026 World Baseball Classic, because the top four teams from each pool will secure an automatic bid. The last-place team will need to enter through a qualifying tournament as this Czech team did in September.

As manager Pavel Chadim had said earlier in the week, “World baseball needs European baseball.”

As this game may have proved, the fans may need it, too.

China will next face Australia (Friday at 10 p.m. ET), while the Czech Republic faces its stiffest test yet against Japan on Saturday (5 a.m. ET).