Colombia Announces Its Presence With Upset Win Over Mexico

Image credit: Guillermo Zuniga (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX— Ever so quietly, Colombia is rising as a baseball nation.

Of the 30 Colombian-born players to ever play in the major leagues, 21 have debuted since 2010. Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria established Colombia as a producer of elite talent in the 1990s, but from a volume perspective, there has never been more Colombian talent in the game than there is now.

The Colombians announced that loudly to the world Saturday afternoon. Facing heavily-favored Mexico in the Pool C opener of the World Baseball Classic, Colombia withstood every challenge, overcame every deficit and proved it could compete.

Jorge Alfaro hit two doubles and scored the go-ahead run on an error in the top of the 10th inning, and Colombia stunned Mexico, 5-4, in extra innings at Chase Field. Colombia won just the second WBC game in the nation’s history, and did so against a team that was widely favored to advance.

“We just reaffirmed that Colombian baseball continues to grow,” Colombia manager Jolbert Cabrera said. “These kids are unbelievable. They (are) so talented. And like I said before, they are fearless. They are fearless and they’re gonna play their hearts out day in, day out. That’s what we’re about.”

At every turn, Colombia showcased the talent the nation now possesses.

Third baseman Gio Urshela and second baseman Jordan Diaz each made highlight-reel plays in the infield to turn aside early Mexico threats.

After Julio Urias mowed down Colombia’s hitters for four perfect innings, Colombia’s offense awoke and stunned Mexico’s ace with back-to-back doubles by Alfaro and Elias Diaz and a two-run homer by Reynaldo Rodriguez off the foul pole to take a 3-1 lead.

And with the score tied 4-4 in the bottom of the ninth, 6-foot-5 righthander Guillermo Zuñiga entered and overwhelmed Mexico’s hitters with a stream of 99-102 mph fastballs. After Colombia took the lead in the 10th, Zuniga came back out for a second inning of work and stranded the tying run on third base to close out the win.

“It something that means a lot,” Alfaro said. “But at the same time we just go out there and try to show everybody we’re good, too. This is our life, you know? We’re going out there, we’re not afraid to play baseball and we can play.”

The growth of Colombian baseball was never more apparent than when Zuñiga took the mound. The 24-year-old righthander pitched the last two seasons at Double-A Tulsa in the Dodgers organization and signed a major league deal with the Cardinals in this offseason.

Zuñiga entered with the score tied in the ninth and promptly dispatched Jonathan Aranda and Alek Thomas with an array of 99-100 mph fastballs and upper-80s sliders. Austin Barnes ripped a two-out double into the right-center gap to put the go-ahead run in scoring position for Mexico, and Colombia elected to intentionally walk Randy Arozarena, bringing Alex Verdugo to the plate with a chance to win it.

Zuñiga promptly struck out Verdugo swinging on three straight fastballs. The velocities: 101 mph, 100 mph, 102 mph.

“We had a conversation yesterday during practice and I told him that he was going to be the man, that he was going to take us to the next level,” Cabrera said of Zuniga. “Because we’ve never had a guy like that before. We got a guy that is going 99, 100, 101, 102. He can go toe to toe with anybody.”

Colombia took the lead in the 10th when Mexico shortstop Luis Urias bobbled an awkward hop off the bat of Gustavo Campero and Alfaro scored from third on the error. Zuñiga returned for the 10th and retired the side in order, punctuating the win by freezing Isaac Paredes on an 89 mph slider to end the game with a strikeout.

“I sent my pitching coach just to ask (Zuñiga) if we take the lead, you want to go back out?” Cabrera said. “And he said ‘We take the lead, I’m the guy.’

“So he showed a lot of heart. Unbelievable performance by that kid. You’re gonna see a lot of him. You’re gonna see a lot of him starting today.”

Rodriguez went 3-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs and Alfaro finished 2-for-4 with two doubles and three runs scored to lead Colombia’s offense. Nabil Crismatt got the start and held Mexico to one run over four innings, while Zuniga picked up the win with four strikeouts over two scoreless innings of relief.

Arozarena went 2-for-4 with a double and a home run to lead Mexico.

Mexico now finds itself in a tough spot with the unexpected loss. It lost a game in which it used its best starter in Urias and had to burn its best reliever, Giovanny Gallegos, and now has a matchup against Team USA looming on Sunday. Facing the heavily-favored Americans, Mexico is in serious danger of falling to 0-2 and moving to the brink of elimination before the weekend is out.

“At the end of the day, it’s frustrating, but you don’t have to be unbeaten to advance,” Mexico manager Benji Gil said. “This game’s over. Now we’re thinking about the United States. Let’s win the next game and we’ll see each other tomorrow.”

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