The underdogs are no longer just a nice story.
When Italy beat Mexico by a run on Thursday, it could be written off as an enjoyable moment. A team of underdogs proved once again that on any given day in baseball anything can happen.
But it's much tougher to explain what happened on Friday.
Italy dominated Canada in the first game of Friday's Pool D action. In the eighth inning Mike Costanzo hit what appeared to be a grand slam to run rule Canada in the eighth, bringing the entire Italian team streaming on the field for their second exuberant celebration in less than 24 hours.
Umpires checked the replay, determined that Costanzo's home run was actually a ground rule double that bounced over the fence and sent him to second base. No matter it just gave Italy more chances to celebrate. Mario Chiarini cranked a single just moments later to give Italy its third bench-clearing celebration. The 14-4 win over Canada in the shortened game gives Italy a commanding 2-0 start that puts them in great shape to advance to the second round of the World Baseball Classic.
Of the previous 10 teams to win two first-round games in this current WBC round-robin format, eight have advanced to the second round. Even better for Italy, its 10-run win over Canada makes it nearly impossible for Canada to top Italy in the run-differential tiebreaker that is used to break ties.
"I'm not saying in a 162-game schedule we would do what we're doing now,” Italy pitching coach Bill Holmberg said. “I would never pretend to think that. But in a short series anyone can win."
In a lineup with several big leaguers, it was some of the lesser-known Italian players that led the way. Chris Colabello, an eight-year independent league player who signed with the Twins in 2012, went 4-for-5 with a three-run home run, four RBIs and three runs scored. Chiarini, a star in the Italian Baseball League, went 2-for-4 with three RBIs and a run scored. Starting pitcher Alessandro Maestri, a starter in the Nippon Pro Baseball league, picked up the win by allowing one run in three innings.
Given a choice of all-stars or cast-offs, no one would willingly choose to field the cast-offs. Make no mistake, if Pool D of the World Baseball Classic was gym class, most of the players on Team Italy would be the guys picked last.
But there are some advantages to being the runts of the litter.
Getting scouting reports on Team USA is easy–just turn on the TV, grab some pitch FX reports and subscribe to Inside Edge. The big league heavy lineups for Team Canada and Team Mexico are not much more difficult to get a read on.
But want to know where to best pitch Italy's shortstop Anthony Granato? You better have had someone scouting the Italian Baseball League. Want to know what Maestri throws? Do you have a good source in Japan?
Italy's assembly of talent that has played around the world has other advantages as well–they have been so spread out that for whatever league you're talking about, they have an old teammate or buddy to call.
"Let's put it this way. We've got some connections. We're Italians," manager Marco Mazzieri said.
That scouting paid off again on Friday.
Even as Italy was sweating the final innings of its come-from-behind win over Mexico on Thursday, it was looking ahead.
Italy's lefties were stockpiled to give Canada a Friday of platoon hell. Knowing that third baseman Brett Lawrie, Canada's lone righthanded power threat, had to leave the team because of a rib injury, Italy lined up lefty after lefty. Three of Italy's four lefties on the roster pitched on Friday. Only Luca Panerati, scheduled to start on Saturday, was held out.
"Especially when we saw Lawrie wouldn't be around—because he keeps you honest," Team Italy pitching coach Bill Holmberg said. "We saved guys yesterday so we could pitch them today."
In a soccer-mad country, no one on Team Italy believes that even an amazingly unexpected WBC Championship is going to make baseball Italy's passatempo nazionale. But it may help build further interest in the sport.
"This morning on the sports page of the Gazzetta there was a big article about baseball. That hasn't happened in a long time," Holmberg said. "The article will probably be a little bigger tomorrow. In Italy, soccer gets 30 pages and everything else gets the last five. Maybe now we're up to the 15th page now. This is tremendous for us."
It's also a big deal for baseball in Europe. Currently, European teams are 5-1 in this year's World Baseball Classic.The Netherlands is one win away from San Francisco and Italy looks like it wants to join them.
For Canada, there's very few good places to go from here. They still have two games to play, but they know that at best they can tie Italy at 2-1, and they know that with the run differential tiebreakers, a 10-run loss to Italy leaves few good options to win the tiebreaker.
“You’ve got to give Italy credit. I mean, we got our asses kicked today. That’s all there is to it,” Canada manager Ernie Whitt said.
“It doesn’t look good, let’s be honest, but stranger things have happened. We have to win the next two games now and get some help,” Whitt added.
Just as importantly, some of the players Canada was counting on the most fell flat in the opener. Canada knew that its starting pitching couldn't compare to Mexico (which has three current big league starters) or Team USA. But Canada did believe that its bullpen would keep the team in games, thanks to relievers like Scott Mathieson and Phillippe Aumont.
It didn't work out the way Canada had planned. Mathieson gave up four runs and five hits in only 1 1/3 innings, including Colabello's three-run home run as Italy took a 5-1 lead. It took Canada four innings to grind its way back into the game, but by the top of the seventh, Canada brought the tying run to the plate and did manage to cut the lead to 6-4.
In came Aumont who was asked to face the heart of Italy's order with big leaguers Anthony Rizzo and Alex Liddi. He got both of them to fly out, but Colabello then singled, Mike Costanzo walked and Chiarini singled, scoring Colabello. Drew Butera then doubled in Costanzo and Chiarini to chase Aumont from the game.