By Walter Villa
JUPITER, Fla.—It came as no shock that Spain routed a tired and relatively inexperienced South African team, 13-3, Saturday night. But what did come as a bit of a surprise was a post-game comment by South Africa manager Rick Magnante.
Asked who would win Sunday’s 5 p.m. World Baseball Classic qualifying championship game between Israel and Spain, Magnante refused to be politically correct.
“Israel, hands down,” he said. “That’s not to be disparaging to Spain, and anything can happen in one game. But Israel is the better team and has better pitching. They are like a Double-A or Triple-A All-Star team.”
Spain manager Mauro Mazzotti seemed to take offense at Magnante’s assessment.
“He better think about beating Spain before he talks,” Mazzotti said. “He better mind his business.”
Spain catcher Adrian Nieto (Nationals), who went 2 for 3 with two runs scored Saturday, said his team’s skill has been downplayed.
“We have guys with international experience and others who competed for the Cuban national team,” he said. “Just because (Israel) beat us the other day (4-2) when we had short rest doesn’t mean they will do it again.”
Yasser Gomez, who went 4 for 5 with 3 RBI for Spain on Saturday, said he doesn’t have an issue with Israel having Saturday off and again being the more-rested team.
“I think it’s better that we played tonight,” the former Cuban Olympian said. “Our timing will be better.”
The winner of Sunday’s game advances to the WBC main draw in March, and Spain would seemingly need to stop Israel slugger Nate Freiman to get the victory. Freiman has four homers in two games this week, including a pair of two-run shots against Spain.
Mazzotti didn’t mention Freiman by name but said his pitchers would have to “treat carefully the guys who hurt us before.”
Nieto said the key was to pitch Freiman inside and not let the 6-7, 225-pounder get his long arms extended.
Mazzotti made reporters laugh when he offered his logic about why Freiman won’t be as effective on Sunday.
“The odds are in our favor,” he said in heavily-accented English. “You can’t hit six homers in (three games)–you know, sabermetrics.”
Israel will start 26-year-old lefthander Eric Berger (Indians), and Spain will counter with 26-year-old righthander Eric Gonzalez (independent Frontier League). Gonzalez is a native of Spain.
Regardless of how Sunday’s game turns out, the Spanish contingent at Saturday’s press conference asserted that their team is not satisfied with having reached the final.
In fact, Mazzotti, a native of Italy, put his own spin on what it’s like to reach your destination and accomplish your objectives.
“As we say in Italy,” Mazzotti said, “if you go to Rome, you have to see the Pope.”