Panama City set to host Classic qualifying action

Panama City set to host Classic qualifying action

Mariano Rivera will make his triumphant return to the pitcher's mound on Thursday night in Panama City.

Granted, it will only be for a ceremonial first pitch, but it will be a momentous occasion nonetheless. The native Panamanian and future Hall of Famer, who missed most of the 2012 season due to injury, will kick off festivities for the World Baseball Classic Qualifier in front of his hometown crowd at Rod Carew National Stadium in Panama City.

Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua and Panama will do battle in a modified double elimination tournament for five days, and the last team standing will earn a trip to the main draw of the World Baseball Classic in March. The rosters are littered with current and former MLB players, 13 in all, while each of the four teams is led by coaches with an MLB pedigree.

San Francisco Giants first-base coach Roberto Kelly has returned to his native country to manage the IBAF No. 15-ranked Panamanian selection, which features five big leaguers. Phillies All-Star catcher Carlos Ruiz and free-agent outfielder Carlos Lee headline the roster, which also includes Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada, Mets righty Manny Acosta and free-agent pitcher Manny Corpas.

"The only reason we are here is to win and clinch a spot on the Classic," Tejada said recently. "The main thing is move on to the Classic, and God willing, everything will go our way. I come with more experience, so hopefully everything will come out as planned."

Panama boasts the largest MLB contingent in the tournament, but up-and-coming Colombia isn't far behind, with its four MLB players and manager Eduardo Perez.

Edgar Renteria, who hasn't played in the big leagues since 2011, is eager for his first opportunity to represent his country in an international competition after sitting out the 2006 and 2009 Classics. Now 37 years old, the pride of Barranquilla has embraced his leadership role with No. 20 Colombia, which also features Rangers catcher Luis Martinez and the young, promising Solano brothers, Donovan and Jhonatan.

"People here in Colombia, they're excited to see the national team go to the World Baseball Classic," Renteria said. "And, to me, it'd be nice because I've been in a World Series before and now I have a chance to play for my country with Colombia."

When Perez takes the bench in Panama City, he'll be trying to outperform one of his new co-workers, Nicaragua manager Dennis Martinez. Affectionately known by his fellow Nicaraguans as "El Presidente," Martinez was recently added to the Houston Astros coaching staff along with Perez. Martinez is slated to be the team's bullpen coach, while Perez will serve as bench coach for new Houston manager Bo Porter.

Perez and Martinez won't have to wait long to square off, with Friday's Colombia-Nicaragua matchup serving as the tournament opener for both teams, following Game 1 between Panama and Brazil on Thursday.

Martinez will have three Major League players on his bench for the qualifier: Padres shortstop Everth Cabrera, Mariners pitcher Erasmo Ramirez and Phillies righty J.C. Ramirez. Martinez recently told reporters that Erasmo Ramirez will get the start for No. 14 Nicaragua on Friday.

Rounding out the competition will be No. 28 Brazil, which is led by manager and 2012 Hall of Fame inductee Barry Larkin. The former Cincinnati Reds star already has some Classic coaching experience, having filled in for Davey Johnson as Team USA's manager during a second-round game in the 2009 tournament.

Young, versatile Yan Gomes made history earlier this year in May, when he became the first Brazilian-born player to debut in the Major Leagues. Gomes, who can play first base and third base, is expected to compete for the Indians backup catcher position in Spring Training after being shipped to Cleveland from Toronto on Nov. 3.

Of the four teams, Panama is the only country to have advanced past the qualifying rounds previously, accomplishing the feat in 2006 and 2009. Panama is still seeking its first tournament win, though, having gone a combined 0-5 in pool play during their two previous trips.

Newly renovated Rod Carew Stadium, which was built in 2009, is slated to hold 27,000 fans. Given Panama's geographic location, south of Nicaragua and north of Columbia, national pride is expected to be on full display all weekend, leading up to Monday's championship game.

Alex Espinoza is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.