By Carter Cromwell

October 15, 2022

When the World Baseball Classic begins next March, the Czechs will most likely be an underdog, but that won’t faze them.  After all, the Czech team wasn’t a favorite before the recent qualifying round, but it proved adept at climbing out of deep holes and rallying from behind and won a spot in the WBC for the very first time. 

In the Qualifiers at Regensburg, Germany, the Czechs fell into a hole with an ugly 21-7 loss to pre-tournament favorite Spain in the opening game of the double-elimination setup.  Then they rallied to defeat France, but found themselves trailing early in the semi-final and final rounds against Germany and Spain, respectively, before coming back to win.

In all, the lopsided opening defeat eventually proved to be nothing more than an aberration.  

“It was just one of those games,” said catcher Martin Cervenka, who has reached as high as the AAA level in his pro career in the United States. “Pretty much everything went wrong. It seemed like they hit every pitch we threw to them.  At one point, I was wondering if we ever going to get an out.”

Photo: Former AAA catcher with the Orioles, Martin Cervenka, hit .375 with two home runs and five RBI for the Czechs at the WBC Qualifiers in Regensburg. Photo credit: Ladislav Svěnčík

Manager Pavel Chadim said, “If you don’t count the 12 runs Spain got in one inning, it’s a 9-7 game.  Also, our pitcher made a bad throw on what should have been a double play to end an inning, and they ended up getting four runs.  Our team wasn’t demoralized afterward – we realized that it was just one game lost.”

And pitching coach John Hussey thought the defeat actually had a positive result.

“Losing the first game like that was unexpected – embarrassing,” he said.  “Spain was just on fire – hitting everything.  It was one of those games that you did not want to come into.”

“Spain was a free-swinging team – very aggressive – and we weren’t locating our pitches well.  They were hitting, and we were giving it up.  It couldn’t have gotten any worse.”

“But the loss was beneficial because it had the effect of really clarifying things.  It might have been the best thing because it narrowed our focus to just the next game – win that, and then focus on what’s next.  It forced us to have pride in how we played.  We were completely present when we played France in the next day.”

In that 7-1 victory, leftfielder Vojtech Mensik hit a home run in the first inning; Cervenka drove in another with a double; and the Czechs had control from then on.  Marek Chlup, who played for 2022 NCAA Division II champion North Greenville University in the U.S., drove in two more runs in the sixth inning, and the Czechs got another run in the seventh and two additional ones in the eighth.  France’s only run came in the top of the eighth inning.

Photo: 2022 NCAA Division II champion, Marek Chlup hit two home runs for the Czechs in the tournament. Photo credit: Ladislav Svěnčík

Starting pitcher Lukas Ercoli, a top reliever for Hrosi Brno in the Czech Extraliga and a late addition to the roster, pitched four shutout innings, and Martin Schneider, usually a shortstop, followed with four strong innings.  Michal Kovala, an 18-year-old who has committed to play at Georgia Tech University in the U.S., pitched a scoreless ninth inning.

“That was the story for the next three games – two pitchers did the bulk of the work,” Hussey said.  “Ercoli had been tabbed earlier to start against France – he was the best local pitcher in our league this year.  Most everyone was available for that game . . . we intuitively knew what needed to be done.”

Chadim said, “Of all the games, probably the most pressure was in the game against France.  We only had a 2-0 lead after five innings, and then France put runners on first and second with no one out.  Then they made a great bunt to try and move the runners up.  Our third baseman couldn’t make the play, but our pitcher (Schneider) was able get to the ball and throw out the runner at third.  That was a key defensive play and gave us some added energy.”

Photo: Czech National Team manager, Pavel Chadim, looks on during 2022 WBC Qualifier action at the Armin-Wolf Arena in Regensburg, Germany. Photo credit: Ladislav Svěnčík

Two days later, the Czechs faced Germany in another elimination game.  They fell behind 3-0 in the first inning when Billy Germaine hit a three-run homer to centerfield but rallied in the bottom half of the inning to tie it on a two-run homer by Petr Zyma and a solo shot by Cervenka.

“The German pitcher was taken out after one inning, so we got into their bullpen earlier than we expected,” Chadim said.  “The key to the game was our two pitchers (starter Daniel Padysak and the closer Kovala).  They really did well.”

The Czech team scored three more times in the third inning when Zyma was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to force in a run and Arnost Dubovy hit a two-run single.  The Germans scored a run in the fifth inning, but Cervenka – who batted .375 with a 1.222 OPS in the tournament – hit a two-run home run in the seventh inning to account for the final 8-4 score.

With that, the Czechs advanced to the final game the next day – against Spain, the team that had handed them the huge defeat in the opener but which had squandered a five-run lead and fallen to Great Britain in extra innings the day before.  

Schneider, 36, had pitched just a few innings in the Extraliga season and was expected to appear only in relief.  However, Chadim asked if he could start the final, and he said, “Hey, you know me.  I was prepared for it.”

And he clearly was, as he went 6.1 innings, striking out five batters and walking none.  He gave up a first-inning run when Engel Beltre doubled and later scored on a sacrifice fly, but that was all.  

Video: 36-year-old Czech firefighter, Martin Schneider, pitches the game of his life vs a stacked Spanish National Team at the 2022 World Baseball Classic Qualifier in Regensburg, Germany. Video credit: World Baseball Classic YouTube Channel

Spain loaded the bases in the fourth inning but wasn’t able to score after Schneider got Lesther Galvan to ground out after falling behind 3-0.

Cervenka came out for a mound visit during that at-bat to visit with Schneider. 

“I was just asking, ‘What do you want? I know what to do. I know I need to throw strikes, so get back there,'” Schneider said with a laugh. “On a full count, I was pretty confident with my slider. I threw one for a strike and got a ground-ball out.”

Martin Muzik supported Schneider’s effort with a two-run homer in the second inning for a 2-1 advantage, and then Chlup hit a solo shot in the fourth. Chlup also made the defensive play of the game, throwing out Edison Valerio at the plate in the seventh inning.  

Videos: Czech sluggers Martin Muzik and Marek Chlup each hit a home run in the 3-1 win over Spain to advance to the World Baseball Classic in 2023 Video credit: World Baseball Classic YouTube Channel

After Schneider left with one out in the seventh inning, Marek Minarik – who had started and lasted just 1.1 innings in the opening game – entered and held Spain scoreless the rest of the way to get the save.

If anyone was surprised at the outcome, it was not Cervenka.

“Going into the tournament, I told our manager that I wanted us to qualify,” he said. “Some people may have thought I was joking, but I told him a couple of weeks beforehand that I thought we had a shot at winning.”

So now the focus turns to training and preparation for the upcoming WBC next March.  As yet, the Czechs don’t know in which pool they will be. They could end up in Taichung, Tokyo, Phoenix or Miami.  Second-round games will be played in Tokyo and Miami, with the championship round in Miami.

Chadim said, “We have the Czech Cup this weekend, then take a month off and start up again in November.  After that, we’ll go to Tenerife [one of the Canary Islands] and play some exhibition games against different teams, and then work inside before starting baseball in early January.”  

Cervenka, who works in sales for a plastics company, said, “Some guys from team are going to Australia to play in the winter, but the rest of us will work at our regular jobs and then train.  

Hussey added, “It will be a different off-season because we’ll have to start earlier than usual. We’ll take a little time off, but then start organizing workouts in a month or so.”

In the WBC, the Czechs will be up against heavyweights such as Japan, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, South Korea, the U.S., Venezuela and others, but they’re looking forward to it.   

“It’s going to be a tough tournament, but a great experience,” Hussey said.  It will be exciting to be on the same field with the great names in baseball and see how we measure up.  But we’re very competitive, and we have nothing to lose, so it’s an enviable position.”

Video: Final two outs as Czech National Team makes history, advancing to the WBC. Video credit: World Baseball Classic YouTube Channel

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