FUKUOKA, Japan—In terms of talent, Japan should have trampled Brazil.
Even without Yu Darvish or Ichiro Suzuki, Japan has one of the strongest teams in the World Baseball Classic. The two-time WBC champions drew from the best players in Nippon Professional Baseball and threw their top pitcher, 24-year-old righthander Masahiro Tanaka, in the opener against Brazil.
Despite the talent gap, Brazil nearly delivered a potentially devastating upset to Japan, leading 3-2 after seven innings before Japan came back to win 5-3.
Cuba should have bulldozed Brazil. The Cuban lineup features a handful of players who might be immediate all-stars if they played in the major leagues. Cuba has players on its bench—and some who aren’t even here—better than anyone on Brazil’s roster.
And yet Brazil held Cuba to a scoreless tie through four innings, with the 5-2 final far from a blowout.
It’s hard to take too much away from a couple of games in March. The 25 scouts in Fukuoka are here to watch Cuba and Japan, but Brazil’s ability to keep the games competitive against two teams with clearly superior talent didn’t go unnoticed.
“It was fun to watch the energy they played with, with all of them feeding off each other,” said one scout. “It just gets to the point with the bullpen depth and the lineup where you’re kind of limited. Japan just had a professional approach, almost like they were biding their time and took control of the game. But the way that Brazil competed, it was fun to watch. They definitely were not intimidated.”
While they kept the outcomes of both games in doubt until the end, the reality is that Brazil still heads into its final WBC game against China on Tuesday with an 0-2 record.
“It’s good to surprise people, but I like more surprising people with a win,” said White Sox righthander Andre Rienzo, Brazil’s starter today against Cuba. “Everyone thought that yesterday and today, but I don’t agree. We didn’t come here to surprise anybody—we came here to win. I’m glad that people see baseball from Brazil, but I don’t want to surprise people—I want to win.”
Rienzo did his part to keep Brazil in the game against Cuba. He held the potent Cuban lineup to two runs on only one hit through 4 2/3 innings, though spotty fastball command led to four walks. Rienzo and Rafael Fernendes, who started against Japan, didn’t dominate but pitched well enough to keep the games close.
Yet Brazil’s limitations were particularly evident in the bullpen, where manager Barry Larkin had to count on pitchers relying on smoke and mirrors to pitch high-leverage innings.
“They were better than we expected,” said a second scout. “But the main thing is there isn’t a ton depth-wise.
“It’s also a testament to the experience of Japan and Cuba in these tournaments. It just seemed like we were waiting for them to turn it on later in the game, and they did.”
There aren’t many Brazilian players in professional baseball, so the national team is a close-knit group. Players have to make decisions—sometimes with heavy pressure from their organizations—about whether it’s in their best interest to play in the WBC rather than stay with their team in spring training. For Rienzo, who gained valuable developmental experience pitching against Cuba on the international stage, the decision was a no-brainer.
“I’m glad to have the jersey on my chest, to have the Brazil name on my chest,” Rienzo said. “I tell that to people because I have the opportunity to be in big league camp with the White Sox, but I never thought about passing this up to try to make the team. If I have the opportunity to be here, I’ll fight to be here because I’m from Brazil and I love to defend my country. It’s my country and we don’t have too much baseball. People might disagree about that, but that’s my opinion and it’s why I’m here. I love to be here.”