by Matt Meyers
March 8, 2006
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.–In dissecting what it needed to do to upset Venezuela, the Italian team stressed playing flawless defense–that didn’t happen. The point was moot, however, as the Azzurri bats, so raucous the previous night against Australia, were silenced by the deafening duo of Freddy Garcia and Carlos Silva in a 6-0 Venezuela victory.
“I don’t want to take anything away for the Australian pitchers, but (the Venezuelans) were throwing a lot harder,” Italy third baseman Mark Saccomanno (Astros) said. “When they are throwing hard and hitting their spots, it makes it tough on every guy that goes up there.”
With a victory a necessity for Venezuela, Garcia was up to the task from his first pitch. He retired the first two hitters on fly balls before striking out the heart of Italy’s order (Frank Catalanotto, Mike Piazza and Vincent Sinisi) in succession to end the first and open the second.
While Garcia was doing that, Venezuela pushed its first run across when Miguel Cabrera drove home Bobby Abreu with an RBI single. Abreu walked with two outs and advanced to second on a balk by Italy starter Lenny DiNardo in what was the first of a trio of miscues by the Azzurri that would lead to three Venezuelan runs.
Italy’s only real threat came in the top of the third when catcher Tom Gregorio walked with one out and Dustin Delluchi reached on a throwing error by first baseman Ramon Hernandez, who threw wide to shortstop Omar Vizquel when attempting to start a double play.
With two on and one out, shortstop Tony Giarratano, a Tigers farmhand, battled Garcia for the second time of the evening. After being retired after a seven-pitch at-bat in the first where he fouled off five pitches, he worked the count full in the third by fouling off three pitches before singling to center to load the bases. Italy was primed to at least tie the game with Frank Menechino up and Catalanotto and Piazza behind him, but Garcia struck Menechino out swinging on three pitches.
“You always expect to have some difficult innings, but I came up with the right pitches,” said Garcia, who earned the win. “I was trying to make a good pitch to Menechino, trying to throw him a sinker down and get a double play. I ended up throwing three perfect pitches and getting the strikeout.”
After working the count to 1-2 to Catalanotto, the decidedly pro-Venezuelan crowd rose to its feet in support of Garcia, who proceeded to fan Catalanotto on a vicious slider at the ankles that induced a helpless swing. By fanning two of its three most accomplished big league hitters in succession, Garcia vanquished the only hope Italy had of ever making it a game.
Venezuela would tack on single runs in each of the next three innings–first with an RBI single from Abreu in the third, followed by a two-out throwing error from Saccomanno in the fourth on a ball hit by Juan Rivera that allowed Ramon Hernandez to score after hitting a one-out double. Their fourth run would come on a Cabrera home run to deep left center in the fifth, his second of the tournament.
“Miguel is our main man,” Venezuelan manager Luis Sojo said. “To be honest, I don’t know where he is going to land. He is unbelievable. Every time he makes contact he hits it hard somewhere.”
By the time Cabrera’s homer had extended the lead, Garcia had given way to Twins righthander Carlos Silva, who was just as dominant, but in an entirely different manner. While Garcia was overpowering in fanning seven in 3 1/3 innings, Silva was his typical self, attacking the strike zone and pitching to contact. He did strike out three, however, including Piazza, whom Garcia fanned twice.
“It’s tough when you face pitchers this good this early in spring,” Italy manager Matt Galante said. “Garcia was on the top of his game and had as good of a slider as he is going to have.”
Venezuela would tack on two more runs in the seventh, the last of which came on a wild pitch by reliever Alessandro Maestre, who entered the game with the bases loaded.
Relievers Rafael Betancourt and Felix Rodriguez pitched scoreless innings in the eighth and ninth for Venezuela in combining with Garcia and Silva on a two-hit gem.
“We finally started hitting and hitting at the right time,” Sojo said. “Pitching was the key and set the tone, but the rest of the team came around.”
The victory for Venezuela puts it in excellent position to advance. It will send righthander Kelvim Escobar to the mound against Australia on Thursday evening where a win should put the Venezuelans through to the second round. Italy will throw Tony Fiore against the Dominican Republic Thursday afternoon and needs a win to remain a factor.
A win by the Dominicans coupled with a Venezuela victory would assure both of those nations a spot in the second round. A win for Italy over the Dominicans would set up the possibility of the convoluted scenario in which the three teams would be tied at 2-1 (with Australia at 0-3) assuming the Dominicans defeat Australia on Friday.
The puzzle will be pieced together further after Thursday’s contests, but for now Venezuela has put itself back in prime position to earn a trip to Puerto Rico, and the next round.