The stage is set for the final game of the World Baseball Classic qualifier at 10 p.m. ET Sunday at Estadio B-Air in Mexicali, and the only thing standing between host Mexico and a fourth trip to next spring's Classic is a team it already has beaten via the mercy rule.
Nicaragua, an 11-0 loser to Mexico on Friday night, advanced to the title game of this modified double-elimination tournament with a 7-6, come-from-behind victory on Saturday over the Czech Republic in 11 innings.
Sunday's game will be streamed live on MLB.com and www.worldbaseballclassic.com.
The finale will determine who advances from this qualifier and represents their nation in the fourth installment of the World Baseball Classic next March. Already in the field are Australia, Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Kingdom of the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, United States and Venezuela. The current Panama qualifier and one coming this September in Brooklyn, N.Y., will round out the WBC field.
With Nicaragua winning Saturday before Panama defeated France, 7-4, in Panama City, it ensured that the four teams from Latin America were still alive while the four from Europe were headed home. Panama's win set up the other Qualifier final against Colombia (2-0) at 7 p.m. ET on Sunday, also streamed live on MLB.com and www.worldbaseballclassic.com.
Nicaragua (2-1), which has never played in the Classic, recorded its second extra-inning victory of the tournament, having also come back twice to beat Germany on Thursday. But Nicaragua is playing without its shortstop, Reds prospect Alex Blandino, who had the walk-off hit against Germany but then left due to a right thigh injury. Blandino, who made the jump to Double-A last season after batting .294/.370/.438 with seven homers and seven steals in 80 games for Class A Advanced Daytona, will be brought along cautiously by the Reds.
Left-hander Hector Daniel Rodríguez, a member of the Orioles' Double-A Bowie Baysox and a Triple-A veteran, will start for Mexico on Sunday, manager Edgar Gonzalez said.
"I think our pitching is our strong suit," Gonzalez said. "Obviously our hitters are doing a great job, too. We're getting some run support. If you look at our pitchers and bullpen, they are all throw hard, they all throw strikes. We've got a great staff and I think that's our strong suit."
Mexico has not hit much in this qualifier so far. It had just four hits in holding on to edge the Czechs in the opener. In the second game, it was mainly a case of Nicaragua struggling all night, with Mexico scratching out five hits.
Mexico first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, on loan from the Dodgers and hoping for his fourth straight Classic, has been mostly pitched around and is 0-for-3 with five walks, scoring three runs. He is a big crowd draw, and Sunday night will be a festival atmosphere in Mexicali.
Marvin Benard's Nicaragua team will be the only one required to play all four days in this qualifier, in contrast to Mexico, which had Saturday off after starting with a 2-1 victory over the Czechs and the rout on Friday. On Saturday night, Benard had to burn through six pitchers to survive for another day, so pitching will be a definite concern for his club.
The Czechs (1-2), who may have been the surprise story of the tournament with their strong fundamentals and big improvement since the 2012 qualifier, proved throughout the tournament that they belonged.
"I think our guys played their hearts and really proud of that," Czech manager Mike Griffin said. "They played hard every pitch, every inning. They showed the world that Czech baseball can play with any other team."
"I was really, really impressed with the Czech pitching," Benard said. "I watched them play against Mexico and they pretty much did the same thing. So hats off to those guys."
The Czechs had only one MLB-affiliated player, compared to 16 for Mexico and 11 for Nicaragua. But they kept doing things right, and they took a quick 3-0 lead Saturday in the first inning behind Jakub Malik's home run off starter Berman Espinoza.
Nicaragua's resilience was on display again, though, and two major throwing errors by the Czechs' position players on the left side of the infield would prove monumental.
Third baseman Premek Chroust overthrew first on a ground ball in the fifth, allowing Nicaragua's second run that cut it to 3-2. And in the eighth, after the Czechs had scored a fourth run for insurance, Czech shortstop Petr Zyma airmailed a throw to first that resulted in two runs. That tied the score and ultimately led to extra innings.
The special Classic extra-innings rules went into effect for the 11th inning, whereby a team starts the inning with runners on first and second. Nicaragua scored three in the top of the inning, and the Czechs scored two in the bottom. With the tying run on third, Right-hander Jose Saenz struck out the last two Czech batters to clinch Nicaragua's place in Sunday's final game.
"Once he came in, I looked at him and he had this nice, poised look on his face and one of the guys told him, 'Hey, you've been here before,'" Benard said. "As a matter of fact, that's what we live for and he stepped up."
Nicaragua combined to strike out 18 batters, including eight by starter Berman Espinoza, tying a World Baseball Classic Qualifier tournament record.
Mark Newman is a reporter for MLB.com. Daniel Arreola contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.