On a night that was supposed to be a complete fiesta at Estadio B-Air, the host Mexico team was just happy to avoid another shocking early upset on the first day of the World Baseball Classic Qualifier in Mexicali.
Mexico, a huge favorite in this four-nation qualifier and playing in a party atmosphere at home, scratched out two runs in the first inning and then withstood an eighth-inning homer by Matej Hejma before escaping with a 2-1 victory Thursday over a resilient Czech Republic team.
Mexico advances to the winner's bracket game against Nicaragua at 10:30 p.m. ET on Friday, while the Czechs will have a quick turnaround and play at 3:30 ET Friday against Germany, a 5-4 loser to Nicaragua in 10 innings. All games in the qualifier are streamed live on MLB.com and worldbaseballclassic.com.
The winner of this qualifier advances to the fourth installment of the Classic next March. Mexico is hoping for a fourth WBC appearance, and was relegated to the Qualifier this time because it was unable to get out of the first round in 2013, when it was stunned early by Italy.
On Thursday, Adrian Gonzalez, the local hero and Dodgers first baseman, walked three times and scored one of the two runs in the first inning. That all happened after he caught the ceremonial first pitch from Fernando Valenzuela, part of a 45-minute pregame spectacle.
"I'm great," Gonzalez said before the game. "Being able to play here in Mexico in the great town of Mexicali, they have a great fan base and people are here from all over to watch us play. Our crowd is one of the best in every WBC. They bring noise and lift us up."
Jesse Castillo's RBI single and Agustin Murillo's sacrifice fly accounted for both of the runs as Czech pitching kept the Mexico bats quiet most of the night.
Washington Nationals left-hander Oliver Perez, hoping for his fourth consecutive Classic, closed the game for Mexico with a 1-2-3 ninth.
If you've been watching the 1 vs. 16 matchups during the first day of the NCAA Tournament, then here was another 1 vs. 16 to consider. The Czech Republic, which went 0-2 during the 2013 qualifier (its first), counted only catcher Martin Cervenka (Indians) as an MLB-affiliated player on the team's 28-man roster. Mexico, meanwhile, brought 16 affiliated players.
The most notable of those, of course, is Gonzalez.
"At the end of the day, you still have to win the tournament," MLB.com analyst Alex Cora said. "It's baseball and anything can happen. Everybody expects him to go 12-for-14 or something, but it doesn't work that way."
There was a 27-minute delay for the start of the game, and that might affect some starting pitchers. But there was no such problem for Mexico's Alejandro Soto. He struck out the side in the top of the first. And then he kept going. Soto struck out two in each of the next two innings, so he was up to seven whiffs through three.
Soto threw 48 pitches during that time, and manager Edgar Gonzalez strategically pulled him before the fourth. If you reach the 50-pitch mark in this tournament, you must wait at least one day before pitching again. So Soto would be available this weekend if needed.
That outweighed the temptation of letting Soto go until the 85-pitch limit, which is the maximum for any pitcher to throw in the qualifier (except for any pitches needed to finish off an at-bat).
The pitching change was immediately felt, though. Left-hander Mark Serrano came on for the fourth and gave up a leadoff single. Serrano got out of the inning by stranding a pair of runners.
Meanwhile, Jan Novak came on in relief for the Czechs after three innings and was electric. In the sixth inning, he struck out the side. By that point, shock waves were being felt among fans who no doubt were expecting a laser light show on the field. This was a game.
Novak got into a jam in the seventh, giving up a leadoff single to Walter Ibarra and, after two outs, walking Quiroz. He went over the 50-pitch mark by one, and was removed. That was an example of the dilemma managers face in this event due to the limit; Novak would have still been available during this weekend had he thrown just 49 pitches, but he was needed for those extra two.
In any case, the Czechs somehow escaped again as Mexico missed a golden opportunity. Left-hander Alex Sogard came in to face Gonzalez, and the Dodgers slugger wound up with his third walk on the night. With the bases loaded, Castillo flied to left, ending the threat.
Oakland A's prospect Jake Sanchez came out of the bullpen for Mexico in the eighth and gave up a two-out solo homer to Hejma. It cut the Mexico lead in half. Mexico held on the rest of the way, and you could practically hear the collective sigh of relief.
"It's a good idea to have this kind of baseball here in Mexico," Valenzuela said while pondering his ceremonial first pitch, "but I'm more relaxed because I'm outside the lines."
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.