Baseball

Former NPB players Matt Clark, Efren Navarro revel in Mexico's triumph

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Mexico made history on Sunday, punching its first-ever Olympic ticket with a 3-2 win over the United States in the bronze-medal game of the Premier12.

The win could not have occurred without the late-game heroics of Matt Clark and Efren Navarro, who have previously competed for NPB teams.

“I still haven’t processed it yet,” Matt Clark said excitedly of his own game-tying solo homer in the bottom of the ninth following Mexico’s 3-2 victory at Tokyo Dome. “It might be one of the biggest highlights of my career.”

After Clark’s equalizer, Navarro ended the game with his RBI single in a one-out, bases-loaded situation in the 10th, which was played with a tiebreaker rule in which both teams started with runners at first and second.

Navarro, who played in 81 games for the Hanshin Tigers over the last two years before he was released at the end of the 2019 season, had gone 0-for-4 with three strikeouts before the fateful appearance. But as a veteran he knew that “every at-bat is a new at-bat.”

“Yesterday, I went 3-for-4 and today, 0-for-(4) with three strikeouts (before the final at-bat),” the 33-year-old said. “I knew something like this would happen and I came through when we needed to. And we’re going to the Olympics.”

Mexico is the fourth team to have earned a spot in the six-nation baseball competition at next year’s Tokyo Games, following host Japan, South Korea and Israel.

Navarro, who hit .264 with three homers and 27 RBIs for Hanshin, credited his team’s pitching and Clark’s bat for saving Mexico. The Mexican hurlers allowed just six hits to the Americans.

“Matt hitting the home run obviously allowed us to win this game,” Navarro said. “It allowed me to be in the situation. My hat off to Matt for coming through in the situation for us. That’s why he’s the MVP. That’s why he got the (MVP) watch, because that was a big, big at-bat for us.”

Navarro, who hit .286 with six RBIs in the Premier12, hinted that Mexico had spent ample time scouting its opponents, proving its seriousness in approaching the tournament. The team frequently employed defensive shifts throughout the competition.

Scouting may also have helped Clark come up with the dinger, which he hit from a 1-1 in the count. The 32-year-old left-handed hitter said he was looking for a split-fingered fastball, which came in a hittable spot.

“(U.S. closer Brandon Dickson) got me out a couple of times (with the first two pitches),” Clark said of the home run at-bat. “But he missed this time and I took advantage of it.”

Mexico skipper Juan Castro said that both Clark and Navarro assisted the team by “sharing their knowledge in regards to how we should play” in the event’s Super Round in Japan.

Mexico may have felt a little more love from the Japanese crowd than the U.S., thanks to local fans’ familiarity with Clark and Navarro.

“Japanese fans are the greatest in the entire world,” said Clark, who wrapped up the tournament with a .300 average and three homers. “They never forget once you’ve played here. They are like one big family and yeah, thank you to them for always coming on and supporting me no matter where I’ve been. All the good messages in social media, it’s been a fun experience coming back.”