Rod Carew National Stadium is expected to be rocking on Thursday night in Panama City, as Brazil and Panama will open the third World Baseball Classic qualifier.
All-time Panamanian great Mariano Rivera is slated to toss the ceremonial first pitch in his hometown, before a couple of young, promising right-handers will take mound in earnest for an 8 p.m. ET game that will be available on a free, live stream at worldbaseballclassic.com. Panama manager Roberto Kelly has tabbed Paolo Espino to throw for Panama, while Andre Rienzo has earned the starting nod from Brazil skipper Barry Larkin.
Espino spent most of the 2012 season with Cleveland's Double-A affiliate in Akron, posting a 7-3 record with a 3.09 ERA in 22 appearances (20 starts). The 25-year-old struck 106 batters while walking just 34 in 116 1/3 innings of work and had a 1.29 WHIP.
Rienzo, meanwhile, cut short his stay in the Arizona Fall League, which generally features baseball's top prospects, to fly to Panama for the WBC qualifier. Rienzo is a rising star Chicago White Sox organization and is vying to become the first Brazilian-born pitcher to crack a Major League roster.
Rienzo, 24, shot through the Minor League ranks in 2012, starting in Advanced Class A before spending most of his year at the Double-A level and finishing with one appearance in Triple-A. Rienzo posted a 4-3 record and 3.27 ERA in 13 Double-A starts, striking out 72 and walking 33 in 71 2/3 innings of work.
Brazil's offense is led by catcher Yan Gomes, who can also play first base and third base. Gomes became the first Brazilian native to play in the Major Leagues when he debuted for Toronto in May. The 25-year-old was recently traded to Cleveland after posting a .328 batting average, 13 homers and 59 RBIs for Toronto's Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas.
Panama's roster features many recognizable names for MLB fans, including Phillies All-Star catcher Carlos Ruiz, veteran slugger Carlos Lee, Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada and ex-big leaguer Ruben Rivera. The 39-year-old Rivera hasn't seen any MLB action since 2003 with the San Francisco Giants, but he has been an offensive force for Campeche in the Mexican League for the past six seasons.
Other notable pitchers for Panama include Mets reliever Manny Acosta, free-agent Manny Corpas and 40-year-old Ramiro Mendoza.
Brazil and Panama are joined by Colombia and Nicaragua in the qualifier, and the winner will earn a spot in the 16-team WBC field for March's championship tournament. Colombia and Nicaragua, led by skippers Eduardo Perez and Dennis Martinez, respectively, will face off on Friday in the second game of the Panama WBC qualifier.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.