On Friday afternoon at Estadio B-Air in Mexicali, Mexico, a much-improved Czech team eliminated its German neighbor, 15-3, in a game stopped after eight innings by the mercy rule.
Despite having to play a quick-turnaround game with little rest after nearly shocking host Mexico in a late game the previous night, the Czechs (1-1) kept their tournament hopes going in the modified double-elimination format by advancing to Saturday's 9 p.m. ET game against the loser of Friday night's Nicaragua-Mexico contest.
The winner of Nicaragua-Mexico will play the winner of that Saturday tilt at 10 p.m. on Sunday to decide which country will advance to the fourth installment of the 16-team Classic next March. Fans can watch all Classic qualifier action on MLB.com or worldbaseballclassic.com and follow along with Gameday.
Catcher Martin Cervenka, the Czechs' only Major League Baseball-affiliated player -- on the Indians' Double-A Akron roster -- hit a grand slam and finished with six RBIs. Czech first baseman Mike Cervenak went 4-for-5 and drove in three runs, including one on a single in a decisive four-run third inning.
"I think hitting is contagious once a couple of guys started to gets hits in clutch situations," said Czech manager Mike Griffin, who served as a coach for the team during the 2010 Intercontinental Cup before managing the team at the 2014 European Championship. "It just started to snowball from there."
Despite Friday's lopsided final score, Germany, which was 2-2 (and eliminated by Canada) in that 2012 Classic qualifier as a debut entry, could blame itself as much as anything for its disappointing outcome in Mexicali.
The Germans had squandered save opportunities in the ninth and 10th innings on Thursday against Nicaragua, and Sascha Lutz's baserunning mistake before a double play in that ninth inning cost Germany what could have been a decisive run. On Friday, Germany took an early 1-0 lead, but it continued to hurt its chances with an errant throw by pitcher Jan-Niclas Stoecklin and then a dropped fly to center by Royals prospect Dominique Taylor in consecutive at-bats to spark the Czech rally.
"What hurt us was our defense," said Germany manager and former Blue Jays infielder Garth Iorg. "I like our offense. We hit some balls hard today in situations, and [the Czechs] made great plays. We did not make good plays."
In addition to cashing in its opportunities, Iorg said that Germany needs improved pitching. Also, more support back home can never hurt.
"We have to get baseball to be more of a priority in Germany," Iorg said. "It's not a national sport; it's about fifth or sixth there. Hopefully, we can get more baseball players and better athletes."
Trot Nixon can relate. The 12-year Major League veteran played a key role in the Red Sox's historic 2004 World Series sweep, and he said the Czech organization brought him in as a bench coach for this qualifier at least partly to mentor players on how to handle this spotlight.
Talking about Thursday's near-upset of Mexico, Nixon said, "The stage is a little bit big, there was a lot of swinging and missing the first couple innings; we were getting out of our game plan. Mexico's a tremendous team. They kind of brought me in here to tell them about the atmosphere you'll be playing in for big games. It took a few innings for our guys to settle down, live in the moment."
Nixon said that when the Czechs boarded their flight from home a few weeks ago, there was a foot and a half of snow on the ground.
"They got here, and no snow," Nixon said. "[Thursday night] was the first time they've been under the lights since last fall. No excuses, though. ... We knew going in we'd get a few [opportunities], and we had to capitalize on them."
Right-hander John Straka settled down after giving up his only run to Germany in the first inning, getting out of that frame with a double play. Because he threw at least 50 pitches (79), he will not be eligible the rest of the tournament, per tournament rules.
"I was going out there to giving us our best chance to win," Straka said. "Defense did a phenomenal job today."
Another bright spot for the Czechs was their bullpen. Righty Martin Schneider followed Straka with two solid innings, and, most importantly, he threw only 29 pitches, one under the limit; throwing 30 or more would have forced him to rest for at least a day. So he will be available if needed for Saturday's game.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Daniel Arreola contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.