World Baseball Classic Qualifier Day 1 – Recap

The first day of games in Regensburg were action packed with Spain edging out South Africa, and Great Britain pummelling France to stay in the winner’s side of the tournament. France and South Africa find themselves one loss away from going home.

In the first game of the day, Spain held on to win 5-4 against South Africa. South Africa, who had already scored twice in the top of the ninth, had the winning run at the plate and tying run on second with just one out, but failed to advance the runners any further, ending their comeback effort just short.

The Spanish closer, former Astros and Blue Jays reliever, Rhiner Cruz, cleaned up his own mess with a pop-out and a swinging strikeout to get Spain their victory. However, his endeavour has cost Spain as Cruz, who threw more than 30 pitches, is now ineligible for the game against the Czech Republic.

WBC Pitching Rules

This was a game which should have had more runs but both lineups struggled when they had runners in scoring position. South Africa went just 2-for-12 and Spain were only marginally better at 4-for-11. This meant South Africa left nine on base to Spain’s eight, which was the crucial difference in the end.

Both teams struggled to put runs on the board early, with this game being 1-0 going into the sixth inning, but as stated above, this was more due to poor situational hitting than stellar pitching.

Justin Erasmus, who started for South Africa, has an interesting WBC career after participating for South Africa in the 2009 Classic and then Australia in the 2017 edition. In his return for SA, he gave up six hits and four walks across his five innings but managed to only surrender one run, a solo shot from Nationals prospect Justin Connell.

Erasmus worked out of jam nearly every inning and with runners in scoring position, Erasmus managed to induce not one but two infield flies from one of the best prospects in the tournament, Noelvi Marte.

Former Cardinals prospect, Ronald Medrano, took to the mound to start for Spain and was definitely the better of the starters but had to work himself out of jams in the third and fourth innings to keep Spain in the lead.

The game came to life when both teams went to the bullpens, something you can expect to happen in many of these WBC qualifier games. Spain doubled their lead in the sixth, but it came from a groundout into a double play which stopped them from tagging on more, for which South Africa punished them in the top of the seventh.

South Africa plated two, with RBI from Victor Ngoepe (the younger brother of major leaguer Gift Ngoepe) and Jonathan Phillips, capitalising on an error from the Spanish right fielder to bring the game level again.

The South Africans nearly shut the Spanish out in the bottom of the seventh, but three extra-base hits in a row with two outs gave Spain a three-run buffer that they just managed to hold on to. The triple from Jesus Ustariz, followed by Chris Kwitzer and Connell doubles, demonstrated the difference in the hitting power of the two teams. Connell was easily the player of the game going 3-for-4 with two runs and two RBI.

The Czech Republic are Spain’s next opponent, and the Spanish batters will need to improve in the key situations to progress. South Africa now waits until Sunday for their next game against the loser of Germany versus Great Britain.

The evening game between France and Great Britain ended up being a far less close affair, with GB winning 14-4 in eight innings after managing to enforce the mercy rules.

The mercy rules may have been more for the local fans than for France as the game didn’t finish until 11:25pm local time. This was thanks to the game starting 36 minutes late due to some very long-winded opening ceremony performances and France’s World Series Winning manager Bruce Bochy using the lack of a three-batter minimum rule to use nine relief pitchers over five innings.

The actual game began in the model of efficiency with both starters, McKenzie Mills and Kevin Canelon retiring the first three batters. France took the lead in the bottom of the second thanks to a solo shot from their catcher, Ivan Acuna, who launched one deep after fouling off the two previous pitches.

With runners on first and second, France looked to move further ahead, but Bastian Dagneau was given out on review after trying to advance to third on a ball that slightly got away from GB’s catcher, Henry Ford. This was called safe on the field; it was a very tight call and although the final score might suggest otherwise this was a big moment in the game.

After gunning a man down at third, Seattle’s top prospect, Ford decided that he couldn’t be outdone by his counterpart and lived up to his billing by taking Canelon deep in the top of the next inning. This was a two-run shot, thanks to an earlier errant throw from third that had allowed the speedy Anfernee Seymour to reach base.

France loaded the bases in the bottom of the third inning thanks to two walks and a single but failed to drive in any runs. This was the second inning in a row in which France had failed to capitalise on runners in scoring positions, and GB would punish them over the next few innings for failing to do so.

Canelon walked two batters in the fourth and was pulled. We saw France go to the bullpen for the first time; little did we know it would happen eight more times. Esten Prioul replaced him and walked Jaden Rudd to load the bases before getting a run-scoring, double play off Kent Blackstone. Prioul was replaced, and Seymour singled to drive in the fourth run before Matt Koperniak struck out with runners on second and third.

After a lengthy top of the fourth, Great Britain also went to their bullpen but with much better results than France. Former major leaguer Vance Worley threw just 12 pitches to retire the French side in order. Here you saw some strategy that the WBC qualifiers force teams to do in the tournament that you wouldn’t see elsewhere.

Mills threw fewer than 50 pitches, so would be available after just a day’s rest, and the other GB relievers all threw fewer than 30 pitches, so they would all be available for the game against Germany. GB Coach Drew Spencer clearly had one eye on the game against Germany but still used his premium assets to get past the France team.

GB tacked on another run in the top of the fifth thanks to a D’Shaun Knowles double to give GB a 5-1 lead. Things were looking rosy for GB, but the issue with going to the bullpen for a majority of the game is that one pitcher might not have it… and that person was Gunnar Greon.

The Arizona prospect came out throwing gas, a clear uptick on the speeds we’d seen so far, but the home plate umpire had been calling a tight zone all game, and he wasn’t giving anything close to poor Gunnar. Greon walked the first two batters on just eight pitches before getting an important K of Alfredo Angarita when he switched to throwing his offspeed pitch.

That strikeout gave the British coaching staff some relief, but a single and throwing error which scored a run and advanced all the base runners meant that Greon got the pull. GB’s strength in this tournament will be their depth of arms, which they showed here.

Cam Opp came into the game in the bottom of the fifth with one out and the score at 5-2 with runners on second and third. By the time he was replaced in the bottom of the seventh, the score was 10-3. Opp got a groundout which drove in the third French run before getting the final out in the fifth with a strikeout.

GB added an insurance run in the sixth, capitalising on a fielding error that was almost a carbon copy of the one by Spain earlier in the day. Opp only faced three hitters in the bottom of the inning thanks to a smart double play from GB shortstop Nick Ward.

The seventh inning really showed the difference between the two squads, France went to their fifth and sixth pitchers, but they managed to give up four runs and get no outs. They gave up three walks and four singles, and if it wasn’t for an outstanding diving catch from Alfredo Angarita that led to a double play to end the inning, this could have gotten even more out of hand.

Despite being 10-3 down, the French team was given an opportunity in the bottom of the seventh thanks to an error from pitcher Chris Reed which gifted them two runners in scoring positions with no outs. They didn’t take it though; they managed just one run.

A four-run, two-out rally from GB in the top of the eighth, left the score at 14-4 and France looking down a defeat, thanks to the 10-run mercy rule after seven innings. GB rolled out their 2-metre giant in Michael Petersen to finish the game, and he did in the minimum of batters, striking out the first two and inducing a fly out to finish the game.

That win progressed GB to a game against the hosts Germany on Saturday night and France a Sunday afternoon game against the loser of Spain and the Czech Republic.

With Day One done, these teams have definitely brought the passion that we love to see in WBC games and hope we will see more in the games to come.

Russell is Bat Flips and Nerds’ resident analytical genius, and arguably Europe’s finest sabermetrician. If you’re not following Russell on Twitter @REassom then you’re doing baseball wrong

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