RECAP | BOX SCORE
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Cuban and Panamanian fans brought their flags and hopes to Hiram Bithorn Stadium expecting a good show.
Cheered by a handful a raucous fans, the favored Cubans nearly lost the game during a ninth-inning meltdown but then bounced back win their World Baseball Classic opener 8-6 in 11 innings.
Panamanian fans jumped in the stands and waved their flags when their team scored twice in the ninth to tie the game at 6. Panama nearly won it then, leaving the bases loaded, but couldn't come back again after pinch-hitter Yoandry Garlobo's go-ahead single in the 11th.
"The whole team is prepared mentally and physically, and any one of us could have done the same," Garlobo said.
Ruben Rivera hit a three-run homer for Panama (0-2), which trailed 6-4 in the ninth and loaded the bases with no outs against the Olympic champions.
Yunieski Maya struck out Freddy Herrera, but Olmedo Saenz blooped a single to center. Carlos Lee then struck out, but Maya forced in the tying run when he hit Sherman Obando on a hand with a pitch. Rivera followed with an inning-ending flyout.
"This was our first game, the one that gave us butterflies, and we are happy that we were able to break the ice with a victory," said Yulieski Gourriel, Cuba's star second baseman.
Panama's starting pitcher, Bruce Chen, said he admired Cuba's dedication.
"They do the small things that need to be done to win," Chen said.
Gourriel went 3-for-4 with a home run and four RBI.
"I was very impressed with him," Chen said. "If he ever gets the opportunity to play in the big leagues, I feel he would do a great job at that level. I was impressed. It seemed that every time he came to the plate, they were in the middle of a rally. If they hadn't had Gourriel, we would have won."
Gourriel had similar words for Chen, who gave up two runs and four hits in five innings.
"Bruce Chen is a great pitcher and for me it's an honor to face a pitcher of that caliber," the Cuban shortstop said.
Panama is playing without Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who decided to skip the tournament.
"If Mariano were here there's no doubt that we would have had a much better chance to win," Chen said. "But Mariano made a decision and he isn't here, and we were ready to do our best with the players we have."
Michel Enriquez started Cuba's go-ahead rally with two outs in the 11th against Jorge Cortes when he was hit by a pitch for the third time in the game. Gourriel walked, and Garlobo singled to center. Frederich Cepeda followed with another RBI single.
Maya got the win and Yadel Marti, Cuba's fifth pitcher, got three outs for the save.
Rivera's three-run, opposite-field homer to right off Vicyhoandry Odelin put Panama ahead 4-2 in the sixth. Cuba tied it in the seventh on Eduado Paret's RBI single and Gourriel's sacrifice fly and then went ahead in the ninth on Gourriel's homer against Manuel Acosta.
Cuba plays the Netherlands on Thursday and Puerto Rico on Friday. Panama's only remaining game is against the Netherlands on Friday.