Supposedly, we knew all the storylines surrounding Pool D at the World Baseball Classic: Team USA’s responsibility to grow the tournament by winning it, Mexico’s deep pitching staff and substantial fan base in Arizona, Canada’s left-handed power and stout bullpen.
The fourth team was … um … don’t tell me … tip of my tongue …
The Italians were regarded as afterthoughts by many observers — which manager Marco Mazzieri rather brilliantly parlayed into a motivational tool.
The Italians didn’t have a day off to rest their pitching staff before the tournament began, as the Americans and Canadians did. Initially, Italy wasn’t assigned a clubhouse at Chase Field in which to dress before Saturday’s game against USA. At Wednesday’s exhibition against the Los Angeles Angels, the public-address system blared instrumental Italian music during batting practice (which the players found trite) and then neglected to play the Italian national anthem prior to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Mazzieri, sharp-witted in English or Italian, wasn’t bashful about reminding his players of these slights.
“I think that we deserve a little more respect than what we have been getting so far,” Mazzieri said. “Honestly.”
Well, the Italians earned that respect Thursday in the most time-honored of ways: They won a game they were supposed to lose. Mexican closer Sergio Romo — last seen freezing Miguel Cabrera for the final out of the 2012 World Series — entered the top of the ninth inning with a one-run lead. He didn’t hold it.
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo — a Florida native, but eligible to play for Italy by virtue of a great-grandfather born in Sicily — belted a high slider to the warning track in left field, where it popped out of Edgar Gonzalez’s glove for a two-run double. The Azzurri — some of them Italian-born, many of them Italian-Americans — streamed out of the dugout in celebration. The smallish yet boisterous crowd, at least three-quarters of which was cheering for Mexico, stood stunned.
From there it was up to Italy’s Jason Grilli, who nearly became the second major-league closer to blow a save in the inning. Grilli loaded the bases when he hit Adrian Gonzalez on the knee with a breaking ball — the Dodgers must have loved that — before Jorge Cantu bounced out to clinch a pulsating 6-5 win for the underdogs.
Thus, Pool D was thrown into chaos. Twenty-four hours ago, the smart money was on Team USA going 3-0 and Canada or Mexico earning the other second-round bid. That thinking became outdated at the moment Rizzo — playing in pain after an unexpected pregame toenail removal — squeezed the final out.
Now Mexico’s game against the U.S. Friday night — before what should be a festive, 50/50 crowd at Chase Field — has become a must-win for the Mexicans if they wish to maintain any hope of advancing out of the group. They will be the underdog that Italy was Thursday, even with ace Yovani Gallardo opposing R.A. Dickey. No amount of tweaking by manager Rick Renteria can change an absolute truth about Team Mexico’s lineup: There is Gonzalez, and there is everyone else. Gonzalez reached base in all five of his plate appearances Thursday, but that included two walks (one intentional) and the ninth-inning plunking. Mazzieri wasn’t going to let Gonzalez beat the Italians. And he didn’t.
Meanwhile, Italy can put itself in a commanding position to earn its first WBC second-round berth with a win Friday over Canada. The Canadians are without Brett Lawrie (injured rib) and Russell Martin (changed heart), while the Italians are on a serendipitous confidence trip with ace Alessandro Maestri slated to start. Italy defeated Canada during the last WBC — on Canadian soil, no less — so an Italian victory in Friday’s game would be less surprising than what occurred Thursday against Mexico.
Make no mistake: The top half of Italy’s lineup is major-league caliber, with Nick Punto and Chris Denorfia followed by Rizzo, Alex Liddi and Chris Colabello, a power-hitting non-roster invitee to the Minnesota Twins’ spring camp. But the Italians won Thursday’s game thanks in large part to three relievers — Tiago Da Silva, Luca Panerati and Nicholas Pugliese — who pitched last season for teams in San Marino, Bologna, and Bologna, respectively. (Washington Nationals minor leaguer Matt Torra also contributed a scoreless inning.)
Mazzieri may not be Herb Brooks in spikes — not yet, at least — but he’s managed to forge a common identity among players from either side of the Atlantic. That’s not easy to do, although the Italian-born players have the advantage of extensive international tournament experience that included a European championship last fall.
In all, seven of the team’s 28 players were born in Italy. The rest possess Italian passports or have documentation that shows they are eligible for them. The game-ending battery — Grilli and catcher Drew Butera — consisted of two Florida residents who have become dual citizens of the U.S. and Italy.
Mazzieri typically addresses his players in English, which has the effect of eliminating barriers between the native Italians and Italian-Americans. The result is a unified group that professes an uncommonly strong belief. On the eve of their game with Mexico, Colabello declared, “Our theory is to shock the world. I think we’re all planning on doing it.”
“In sports, there’s always an underdog,” Butera said. “It’s a really cool, unique story when the underdog does well. Hopefully we can continue having success and maybe make for a really good story. I know everybody in the clubhouse believes we can. I believe we can. I know we have the personnel. I know we can do it.”
Not that Thursday’s win was easy. Mexico led from the bottom of the first until Rizzo’s double dropped in the ninth. And as the bases filled behind Grilli in the ninth, fans clad in red and green began an impassioned chant of Sí, se puede! Sí, se puede! — a goose-bump moment that proved, even in defeat, how relevant and emotional the WBC can be. The Classic has significance in Italy, too, where the sport has grown over the last decade, thanks in large part to Liddi’s emergence. Thursday’s victory — over a North American team, in a North American game — could have far-reaching implications for youth interest in baseball.
“This kind of tournament is so special,” said Liddi, the first born-and-raised Italian big-leaguer, who went a loud 2-for-3 Thursday. “It’s not about one player. It’s not about one team. It’s not about a city. It’s about an entire country. When you have the chance to represent your country at the highest level, it can’t get any better than that, I think. It feels like playing in the postseason.”
There’s a discernible baseball savvy and certain charm about the Italian team. Butera hit the tying home run in the fourth inning — against Boston’s mercurial Alfredo Aceves — while his father, Sal, watched from the stands. Sal scouts for the Toronto Blue Jays, and Drew joked afterward about what kind of report he might write about him.
But when asked about his team’s chances of advancing, Drew Butera’s expression grew serious. “We’re in it to win it,” he said firmly. “The whole thing.”
The whole thing.
A long shot? Sure. But the Canadians — and the Americans after that — would be advised not to take the Italians lightly. This European novelty has turned into a baseball team.