PANAMA CITY, Panama – Former Barry University star Yan Gomes will forever be remembered as the pioneer of Brazilian baseball, but he's not alone anymore. He now has 27 other teammates he can share the experience with, as they will get ready to shock baseball once again when they face the world's best in March.
Against all odds, and almost all fans at Rod Carew National Stadium, Brazil used a trio of stellar pitching performances, and a timely RBI from Gomes, to claim a thrilling 1-0 victory against Panama on Monday night to earn an improbable bid to the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
"You can tell from the beginning of this tournament we didn't start scared," Gomes said. "We were playing the top seed in this tournament [Panama] and we just came out and played the way you're supposed to play; we played with a lot of heart.
"That's the thing you're going to see out of Brazil -- no matter who is in front of us we're going to play with a lot of heart and a lot of determination and go out there and give 100 percent. ... The future is even brighter now."
Once Thyago Vieira struck out Ruben Rivera in the top of the ninth inning, the Brazilian team spilled out of the dugout, some hoisting their country's flags high over their head as the mob formed behind the pitcher's mound. The celebration continued in the locker room, as champagne and beer flowed in victory.
"It doesn't matter who you're playing against, it doesn't matter where you play, it doesn't matter when you play," Brazil manager Barry Larkin said. "If you have a plan, a mentality, if you execute, if you do the small things -- you can win. You can play with anyone in the world."
In a span of five days, Brazil went from unknown underdog to being the most dominant team of the Panama qualifier. Talk about a Cinderella story.
Before the tournament started, few would have been able to name any Brazilian baseball players other than Gomes, who became the first native of his country to crack an MLB roster with Toronto back in May. Now the baseball world has less than four months to learn about Brazil's baseball squad, one which showed great attention to detail throughout the tournament and even better pitching.
"We have a tremendous team," said Gomes, who was traded to the Indians over the off-season. "I've never seen more guys want to come out there and play harder than anybody. We didn't come out scared, and that just shows the Brazilian pride and how we were raised. I know we're a very popular soccer country, but with the talent that we have in that sport, why not bring it out to baseball?"
Fittingly, Gomes was responsible for driving in the game's lone run on Monday night. It came in the second inning, when he blooped one into center field and it dropped between two defenders, allowing Leonardo Reginatto to score from third base. Perhaps fate was on Brazil's side, as Gomes' RBI was one of several bloop Brazilian hits that found holes throughout the evening.
"It's good to be good and it's good to be lucky," Larkin said. "We are a little bit of both today."
It wasn't hard to spot the Brazilian fans among the 10,368 in attendance. All 20 or 30 of them waited eagerly behind their team's dugout to congratulate the players as they wrapped up their on-field celebration.
If it wasn't for a dominant pitching effort between starter Rafael Fernandes, Murilo Gouvea and Vieira, Gomes' RBI wouldn't have meant a thing. On the biggest stage in Brazil's history of baseball, Fernandes turned in an impressive six-inning, shutout performance.
Using a mix of his cutter, changeup, curveball and fastball, Fernandes silenced a lineup that featured such stars like Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada, Phillies All-Star catcher Carlos Ruiz, Carlos Lee and Ruben Rivera. In all, Fernandes faced three batters over the minimum, allowing two hits and a walk while striking out two in the longest start of the entire qualifier.
"I think some stars were born in this tournament," Larkin said. "Yes, Yan Gomes, being the first Brazilian player in the big leagues, I think that is huge. But I also think Rafael Fernandes, I think his name is now in the books in Brazil for being the winning pitcher and leading us to this victory."
Gouvea followed up Fernandes' stellar start with 2 1/3 innings of no-hit ball. For the tournament, Gouvea tossed 6 2/3 scoreless innings, as he also played a huge role in Brazil's 3-2 win over Panama in the qualifier's opener on Thursday.
Vieira, meanwhile, picked up his second save of the tournament in a pressure-packed, ninth-inning situation. After Tejada laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to move Isaias Velasquez to second base, Vieira relieved Gouvea and was tasked with facing Ruiz, Lee and Rivera -- Panama's Nos. 3, 4 and 5 hitters -- in order.
Ruiz brought the Panamanian crowd to its loudest level of the night when he singled to left field, but Tejada was held up at third base. Vieira was unfazed, though, as he struck out Lee and Rivera to close out the game on a hot, humid, historical night. For the tournament, Brazil's pitchers surrendered just four runs in 27 innings.
"Our pitchers pitched incredibly well," Larkin said. "Rafael Fernandes, he was an absolute stud today. Murilo Gouvea came in and did a nice job yet again, he really wanted the ball. And then our closer, Thyago Vieira, he came in and did what he's capable of doing."
Panama's pitching was also on point Monday night, but there's not much you can do when the offense can't push across a run. Starter Angel Cuan completed four tough innings, allowing one run on eight hits and zero walks while striking out six. Ramiro Mendoza, meanwhile, followed that up by giving up two harmless hits in 3 2/3 innings before Manny Acosta recorded Panama's final out pitching.
Panama skipper Roberto Kelly was quick to praise Brazil's quality squad for earning a berth to the 2013 World Baseball Classic, but couldn't hide his disappointment after watching his native country lose in front of its hometown fans.
"You've got to give credit where credit is due," Kelly said. "They've got good pitching. Both times they faced us, the pitching was outstanding. ... Obviously, I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed because our goal was to qualify. Anything other than that, it's not reaching your goal."
The team now awaits word on their pool assignment. The four first-round pools will be held in March in the Fukuoka Dome in Japan, Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium in Taiwan, Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico and Chase Field in Phoenix, Ariz.