PANAMA CITY -- Team France was close to serving up some disappointing déjà vu to Panama on Saturday night. But the French pitching staff had trouble finding the strike zone in key moments, and a crucial error helped Panama respond to a three-run deficit to claim a 7-4 victory on the third day of the World Baseball Classic Qualifier.
Back in 2012 for the previous Qualifier at Rod Carew Stadium, Panama dropped a heartbreaking 1-0 contest to an underdog Brazil team and missed out on a chance to make the Classic final. On Saturday, the team was able to respond and keep its hopes alive while knocking out a resilient French squad from the competition.
As he saw his team scuffle, Panama manager Carlos Lee felt an itch to get back out on the field.
"What was I was thinking? That I wanted to hit," Lee said in Spanish. "Like I've said, it's very difficult to watch the game without playing in it."
Panama is now set to rematch with Colombia in the qualifier championship on Sunday at 7 p.m. ET, two days after the Colombians claimed a 6-3 win over the host country. The stakes will be higher this time around, as a berth to the 2017 World Baseball Classic will be on the line. Fans can watch the action on MLB.com and www.worldbaseballclassic.com, or follow along with MLB Gameday.
Panama entered Saturday's contest as a heavy favorite but it was France that jumped out to a two-run lead in the bottom of the first inning. Frederic Hanvi delivered an RBI double to the left-field gap before scoring on an Andy Paz sacrifice fly later in the frame.
The French added to their lead in the fourth when Panama righty Angel Cuan balked with the bases loaded, bringing home Ernesto Martinez.
"They came out with the same intensity they showed against Spain yesterday -- scored early, got some base hits," Lee said. "They're doing the right things. They play hard, they run. Eventually they're going to be trouble for a lot of people."
In the top of the fifth, though, France unraveled and allowed Panama to retake the lead. The rally started when Isaias Velasquez singled home Jorge Bishop to get Panama on the board. After a run-scoring fielder's choice cut Panama's deficit to a single run, France second baseman Frederic Walter dropped a potential third out in foul territory with the bases loaded and it proved to be a costly error.
Seventeen-year-old Antoine Villard couldn't get out of the jam, walking two batters to bring home two runs and give Panama a 4-3 lead.
"I always say that in the game you usually have a couple of storms, two storms to weather a little bit," France manager Eric Gagne said. "I think if we would have kept it right there it would have been a little bit of a momentum change. It's easy to look back now and say, 'Ah we could have done this, we could have done that.' But I think we've got to look at what we've done. It's very positive, it's very good."
France didn't back down. In the bottom of the frame, first baseman Rene Leveret launched a solo shot to left field to knot the score at 4.
From there, Panama scored the final three runs to put its fans at ease and set up a chance to exact revenge with Colombia. Panama pinch-hitter Carlos Quiroz drew a go-ahead, bases-loaded walk in the seventh, before the team tacked on two more insurance runs in the eighth.
The comeback was largely made possible by Cuan's strong relief effort. Coming in for starter Dario Agrazal, who labored through his two innings of work, Cuan (1-0) finished 4 2/3 frames, allowing two earned runs on three hits and three walks while striking out six to earn the victory. When he walked off the mound with two outs in the seventh inning, Cuan received a huge ovation from the home fans.
"We had a different plan, but plans change in a heartbeat," Lee said. "We were expecting him to go [in the] fifth, sixth, seventh. We had to bring him in early and he did great. He kept us in the game. That's why when he came off the mound, people appreciate that. People know the game."
Ultimately, France doomed itself by issuing too many free passes. Of the 10 walks Panama worked on Saturday night, three of them came with the bases loaded. But all things considered, the tournament was a great success for France. The team picked up its first-ever WBC win over Spain on Friday, and had Panama on the ropes on its home turf.
"We lost to a better team," Gagne said. "We gave them everything we had and I think we scared them a little bit. … They play on weekends, you've got to remember. They play maybe one or two times a week. Some guys took time off from their jobs to come here."
As for Gagne, he said he would be boarding a plane to rejoin the Dodgers organization in a coaching role on Sunday.
Alex Espinoza is a contributor to MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.