TAICHUNG, Taiwan -- A sellout crowd rolled into Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium on Wednesday night to watch its home team, Chinese Taipei, square off against Panama.
Cheerleaders danced on dugouts, fans banged thundersticks and call-and-response chants rang out from behind home plate all the way to the outfield seats mid at-bat. If you thought Cuba’s Horn Guy was loud, this will sound like a 15,540-piece orchestra playing right in your living room.
Despite the electric atmosphere by the home crowd, Panama’s experienced bats and fantastic defense proved too much for Chinese Taipei. Maybe it thrived off the noise. Manager Luis Ortiz’s squad took down the hosts, 12-5.
When asked how Panama was able to withstand the noise, Ortiz said, "Block the outside noise by putting points on the board. After you score, that intensity is going to be gone."
The Panamanians did most of their damage in a five-run fourth inning and six-run sixth. One of the stars of the show was Panama’s first baseman and No. 9 hitter Jahdiel Santamaria. He had two doubles, two RBIs and one run. The 35-year-old has had a long baseball career, playing A-ball with the Yankees and Braves from 2006-10 and participating in numerous international contests for his home country.
Jonathan Araúz, a Mets Spring Training non-roster invitee, plated two runs on a bases-loaded single in the sixth to put the Panamanians up, 8-1, and then after an RBI single by Rubén Tejada, Erasmo Caballero really blew things open with a two-run single to put his country up by 10. Taipei scored again in the bottom of the inning to cut its deficit to nine, but then Araúz doubled in another run in the top of the seventh to push Panama's lead back to 10.
The lone bright spot for Chinese Taipei was a booming home run by Nien-Ting Wu to avoid succumbing to a 10-run mercy rule in the seventh. It brought the raucous crowd back for a moment, but then that was it.
"They played well, starting the game," said Ortiz. "They can play defense. They are aggressive. They make contact. But head to head, we beat them. That's the bottom line."
Panama’s pitching was strong -- Mets farmhand Humberto Mejía started and gave up just two hits in two innings pitched, while five more relievers combined to give up just five runs. But the defense was where Panama sparkled. Tejada dazzled at short, Jose Caballero made a fence-hugging play down the left-field line and the greatest catch of the night -- and of the tournament so far -- came on a collision play in right-center field by Luis Castillo. You’ll have to watch it a few times to make sure you saw it right.
"That was a hell of a catch," Ortiz said. "But he's a good ballplayer. I know these kids. I scouted these kids, so I know he has played for me previously. Also very good outfielder, used to be a center fielder, but now he's a little bit older. ... That was a hell of a play. My team can play defense. We can pitch, and we can play defense."
Panama plays next against the Netherlands here on Thursday (11 p.m. ET Wed., FS2), while Chinese Taipei will face off vs. Italy on Friday (6 a.m. ET, Tubi). Cuba is also in Pool A. Each team faces the other four in round-robin play, with the pool's winner and runnerup advancing to the quarterfinals in Tokyo against the top teams from Pool B.