Mexico on home turf for Classic qualifier

Host team to vie with Czech Rep., Germany, Nicaragua for ticket to 2017 tourney

Mexico on home turf for Classic qualifier

Fernando Valenzuela will be back on the mound to throw the ceremonial first pitch on Thursday. Adrian Gonzalez and his Mexico teammates will be back on the field in pursuit of what they hope will be a strong run in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

The only question at Estadio B-Air in Mexicali, Mexico, is whether the host team will return to its fourth Classic -- or if this weekend will end with the Czech Republic, Germany or Nicaragua shocking the home crowd and clinching a surprise debut in the big international event.

Those are the four teams that will compete from Thursday through Sunday in the double-elimination qualifier in Mexicali. It starts with a Thursday doubleheader featuring Germany vs. Nicaragua at 3:30 p.m. ET and then the Czechs vs. Mexico at 10:30 ET. Watch all the games live on MLB.com along with Gameday pitch-by-pitch tracking.

Mexicali is one of two qualifiers happening simultaneously, along with the one in Panama City featuring host Panama, Colombia, France and Spain. The winner of each qualifier will advance to the fourth installment of the World Baseball Classic next March.

There are four overall qualifiers, also including the one that host Australia won last month in Sydney and the final one coming this September to Brooklyn, N.Y.

Mexicali is right inside the Mexican border on the Baja Peninsula, and its ballpark no doubt will be dominated on Thursday by passionate fans and the pageantry of green, white and red in the stands. But before the hosts take the field, the Germany-Nicaragua opener will be an intriguing matchup to watch, featuring two teams managed by former Major League players who each spent nine-year careers entirely with one club.

Garth Iorg, an infielder for the Blue Jays from 1978-87 and a member of the '85 club that fell a game short of reaching the World Series, will guide Germany as manager in the country's second appearance in a Classic qualifier. Germany made its Classic debut during the 2013 qualifying round and went 2-2 after falling to Canada in the final game. The team doesn't have its best talent, Max Kepler, who is trying to make the Twins' roster, but it does feature six affiliated players: right-handed pitchers Sven Schuller (Dodgers) and Markus Solbach (D-backs); catcher Bruce Maxwell III (A's); infielder Nadir Ljatifi (Reds); and outfielders Donald Lutz (Reds) and Dominique Taylor (Royals).

Nicaragua, which will be appearing in its second Classic qualifier after going 0-2 in 2013, will be skippered by Marvin Benard, an outfielder for the Giants from 1995-2003. His squad will feature 11 affiliated players: right-handed pitchers Kevin Gadea (Mariners), Carlos Gonzalez (Reds), Osman Gutierrez (Blue Jays), Jonathan Loaisiga (Yankees), Diomar Lopez (Padres) and Jhonny Polanco (Red Sox); left-handed pitcher Leonardo Crawford (Dodgers); catcher Melvin Novoa (Rangers); infielders Alex Blandino (Reds) and Omar Obregon (Braves); and outfielder Jairo Beras (Rangers).

"Mexico is the favorite," Benard said, but he added: "Baseball is unpredictable."

You don't have to tell that to the Mexican team. It was 7-6 overall in the first three installments of the international event, making it to the second round in 2006 and '09, before being shocked by Anthony Rizzo and Italy in its 2013 Classic opener en route to being eliminated in the first round. Thus the need to win a qualifier now.

The Czech Republic will be managed by Mike Griffin, who served as a coach for the team during the 2010 Intercontinental Cup before managing the team at the 2014 European Championship. The Czech Republic went 0-2 during the 2013 qualifier, which marked the country's debut in the Classic. Catcher Martin Cervenka (Indians) is the lone affiliated player on the team's 28-man roster.

Adrian Gonzalez, a local hero with close proximity to his former Padres club and current Dodgers club, left the Dodgers after their Cactus League game on Tuesday -- with permission from manager Dave Roberts. Gonzalez has been a force in past Classics, hitting a decisive homer off then-reigning National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey of the United States in the last tournament.

"I'm happy he's playing for his country, means a lot for him and his family," Roberts said. "And as a veteran player, we really don't need to concern ourselves with Adrian getting ready for a season. ... We definitely support that."

Managing Mexico will be Adrian's brother Edgar, a member of Team Mexico in 2009 and '13. After reaching the second round in each of the first two tournaments, Mexico lost to Canada and fell short in its bid to reach the second round in '13.

Also back for Mexico and hoping for a fourth consecutive Classic trip will be left-hander Oliver Perez, who will be the only expected member of the Nationals' 25-man roster to play in next week's qualifier. He was among seven players ejected in Mexico's last appearance after a fracas that overshadowed the country's elimination defeat against Canada.

"I'm going to have the opportunity to wear the Mexico uniform," Perez said. "That's exciting to see all the fans yelling, 'Mexico, Mexico.' You feel a great feeling, I don't know how to say it, goose bumps. That's how you feel when they play the national anthem and all the fans are in the stadium."

Mexico's 28-man roster features 16 players affiliated with Major League clubs: right-handed pitchers Andres Avila (A's), Carlos Fisher (Rangers), Giovanny Gallegos (Yankees), Stephen Landazuri (Mariners) and Jake Sanchez (A's); left-handers Hector Rodriguez (Orioles) and Jesus Soto (Padres); catchers Xorge Carrillo (Mets) and Sebastian Valle (Yankees); infielders Alejandro Mejia (Cardinals) and Efren Navarro (Mariners); and outfielders Sebastian Elizalde (Reds), Leonardo Heras (Astros) and Juan Perez (Reds).

On Friday, the Czech Republic will play TBD at 3:30 p.m. ET, followed by Mexico vs. TBD at 10:30 ET. The remaining games are at 9 p.m. ET Saturday and 10 p.m. ET Sunday.

The remaining three qualifier winners will join the 13 countries -- Australia, Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Kingdom of the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, United States and Venezuela -- that have already received invitations based on their performance in the 2013 tournament or in a prior qualifier (Australia).

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.