By Gabriel Fidler, lead writer of Extra Innings: Baseball Around the World, and contributing writer to Mister-Baseball.com
BROOKLYN, New York – Great Britain made the most of its six hits and received great pitching performances from Blake Taylor and Chris Reed in upsetting Brazil 4-3 on a beautiful autumn evening. The victory propelled Team GB to the World Baseball Classic Qualifier’s championship game against undefeated Israel on Sunday.
It was clear from the beginning that the game would be controlled from the mound, as Britain’s Blake Taylor and Brazil’s Andre Rienzo both flashed impressive stuff in the first inning.
Taylor, a Mets’ farmhand who last pitched at MCU Park in 2015, was tabbed with easily the most important start of his young career, and was clearly pumped up in the first. Brazil tested him immediately with a bunt attempt from Gabriel Macías, but Taylor pounced on the ball and proceeded to finish the frame with two strikeouts sandwiched around a walk.
Rienzo, one of three Brazilians with recent time in the majors, was fresh off a useful campaign for the Miami Marlins’ Triple-A club. The righthander, who only switched to relieving in 2016, had a 2.51 ERA for the New Orleans Zephyrs with eight saves. For Brazil, however, Rienzo could be used for nothing less than to start a game of this magnitude.
The hurler did not disappoint out of the gates, striking out the first two batters before Champ Stuart, having a breakout performance in the qualifying tournament, stroked a triple to deep left centre. Rienzo buckled down on Todd Isaacs, getting a ground ball on an 0-2 pitch to end the threat.
Taylor and Rienzo matched 1-2-3 innings in the second before Brazil’s offense, latent throughout the tournament, finally revved into action. A leadoff single from Fernando Luciano was erased on a double play, but the Green-and-Gold were not to be stymied.
Macías bounced a single up the middle and Irait Chirino followed with a safety of his own. A wild pitch put two runners in scoring position, and Leonardo Reginatto, Brazil’s sparkplug, stroked a single to right that plated Macías and Chirino. Brazil’s loyal fans erupted in even louder cheers as the inning ended, matching the fans behind Britain’s dugout with chants of “Brasil!” against “Let’s Go GB!”
Not to be outdone, Chavez Young singled to start the bottom of the third and Kyle Simmons followed by blooping a ball down the right field line that glanced off the racing second baseman’s glove for a double.
A hit by pitch would load the bases, and Rienzo looked to be drawing on his experience with back-to-back strikeouts, but the righthander plunked Isaacs on a full count to force in a run. Brazil looked to be out of it after Rienzo induced a grounder to the left of second base, but Reginatto, who had played solely at third this tournament, booted the ball and two runners raced home. Isaacs attempted to take third on the play and was thrown out to end the inning, but not before Britain took a 3-2 lead.
Taylor and Rienzo both shook off the difficult third frames with three-up, three-down fourths, but Brazil knocked Taylor out of the game in the fifth. The hard-working southpaw gave up a walk to Luciano and a single to Lucas Rojo, and with Taylor’s pitch limit approaching, Britain’s manager Liam Carroll summoned the bullpen.
With two on and no out, Chris Reed had the unenviable task of preserving Britain’s lead, but the six-year minor league veteran and former Los Angeles Dodgers’ prospect took to the task with aplomb. Fresh off a 3.65 ERA in the Marlins’ system, the lefty got a weak foul pop off a Macías attempted sacrifice bunt and struck out pinch hitter Bo Bichette and Reginatto to exit the rally unscathed.
Rienzo completed his outing with a dominant fifth inning, punching out two and pumping his fists after his third strikeout of Jasrado Chisholm.
It was Reed’s turn to wriggle out of his own jam in the sixth after giving up a leadoff double to Dante Bichette, Jr. and waiting too late to toss to first after knocking down a hard hit Juan Carlos Muñiz grounder a batter later. Reed took a sacrifice bunt for an out and bore down for two popups, and Britain maintained a 3-2 lead.
Felipe Sales breezed through Britain’s lineup in the sixth, and Brazil once more threatened in the seventh. Macías drew a one-out walk and move up a base on another infield hit, this time from Bo Bichette, and a double steal put two runners in scoring position.
Reginatto bounced a ball to Chisholm at shortstop, and after Macías bolted home, Chisholm threw a strike to catcher Chris Berset, who tagged out the runner. Another groundball later, and Brazil had stranded two more runners.
Britain would make their opponents pay for the missed opportunity in the bottom of the frame. Albert Cartwright looped a one-out safety to right and advanced on a wild pitch. Young joined him on the basepaths after working a free pass, and Kyle Simmons, who had snared two very difficult foul popups in the past two innings, stroked a single to score Cartwright, taking second on the throw home.
It appeared that Great Britain would have a chance to break the game open, but Brazil’s catcher, Luís Paz, picked Young off third, an Sales got Chisholm to fly to centre. The damage, however, was done, as Brazil found themselves down 4-2.
Brazil finally struck again in the eighth, but once more failed to capitalise on its baserunners. Reinaldo Sato doubled with one out and came home on a fielding error, and Luciano and Rojo stroked singles to load the bases with one out and needing only one run.
Reed, in his fourth inning of work, reached back for something extra and found it, blowing fastball after fastball by Macías and Bo Bichette to get out of the dangerous situation with only the single run allowed.
Britain put two runners on in the bottom of the inning, but turned the ball back over to Reed with the margin still at 4-3. Two quick outs later, it looked like the game would end with a whimper, and even Brazil’s supporters had finally fallen silent.
Muñiz had other plans, though, rocketing a ball to the left centre field gap that stayed in the park but was deep enough for him to race to second. An excited Muñiz clapped his hands, and chants of “Brazil” rang through the crowd once more.
Carroll was forced to pull Reed as his pitch limit had been reached, and inserted Dan Cooper. With Sato batting, the stadium took a collective gasp as Muñiz took off for third, and Britain’s Berset fired down to Simmons at third. Both teams knew the out was made before a call was even made, and Great Britain’s bench burst onto the field, rushing the mound as Union Jacks fluttered behind their dugout.
The victory was the most important in recent British baseball history and would certainly rank among its biggest upsets, with Brazil at No. 16 in the world rankings and arguably the tournament favourites.
“I was a little surprised [when Muñiz took off for third],” admitted Carroll after the game. “I was really pleased with Chris [Berset] today, and he made a great throw.”
“I was trying to be aggressive in the game,” explained a rueful Barry Larkin, Brazil’s skipper, “but there are some things you’re really surprised to see in baseball, and Muñiz taking third was something I never thought I’d see. He came up with a big hit and couldn’t hide his emotion and had a mental lapse out there.”
The win went to Reed (1-0), who worked around seven hits and a walk in 4 2/3 gutsy relief innings. He struck out five in relief of Taylor, who went four innings and gave up two runs on five hits and two walks, whiffing three.
“I didn’t make it easy on myself or the team, but I had a good defence behind me,” granted Reed. “It’s been a long road since last time I pitched for Great Britain in Regensburg. I’ve played in a lot of places in the US and I’m now a little more refined, a little calmer, and I wasn’t flustered by all the baserunners.”
The loss went to the unlucky Rienzo, who struck out eight in five innings and allowed only three hits and two hit batsmen. Only one of the three runs he surrendered was earned.
“When I play for the national team, I always give 110 percent, and sometimes it’s really hard to control emotions,“ commented an obviously upset Rienzo. “I am really proud to put on a Brazil shirt, but I didn’t do quite enough for the win.”
Stuart and Simmons each had two hits for the victors, who totaled only six on the day.
“I didn’t try to do too much,” explained Stuart. “I kept it simple and just tried to get on base. I’m so fortunate to be on this Great Britain team-I have never had so much fun in my life and it’s a rare feeling. I can’t really even say much more.”
“The only thing I had in my mind was helping the team,” offered Simmons on his standout day. “Getting dirty or getting injured, I just want us to win.”
“I think Simmons was leading me out there,” praised the veteran Reed of his 19-year old teammate. “He was making plays and telling me what to do [on defence], which I really appreciate.”
Brazil accumulated 12 hits, but the team left 11 men on base and was 3-for-14 with runners in scoring position. Muñiz, Luciano, and Rojo each recorded a brace, while Reginatto had two RBI and finished with a .417 average.
“I can’t say how proud I am of our pitchers. We had a defined game plan coming in, and they executed,” concluded Larkin. “We have really developed our arms. Both Andre and Bo Takahashi took losses despite pitching well, and we’ll have to work on our execution. That’s certainly something we’ll have to do.”
“We didn’t do well against lefthanded pitching either, and Israel exploited that yesterday and Great Britain did the same today,” added Brazil’s manager. “We’ll lick our wounds and then get back to developing players. Many people told me coming in that we were the favourite, and that shows how far we’ve come in four years.”
Great Britain (2-1) will challenge Israel (2-0) for the right to join South Korea, Taiwan, and the Netherlands in Seoul in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. The winner-take-all contest begins at 10 p.m. GMT on Sunday and can be watched live at www.worldbaseballclassic.com.
Live updates, analysis, and interviews can be followed on Twitter @extrainnings_bb and Mister Baseball will have an exclusive wrapup after the game.