Short-Season Report

Italian pitcher hopes road to big leagues starts in Boise





See also: Previous Short-Season Report


American baseball history is filled with the stories of Italian-American athletes like the DiMaggio brothers, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Tommy Lasorda, Tony Lazzeri and Mike Piazza.

But now the first native Italian pitcher ever to play in professional U.S. baseball is starting to craft his own success story.

Alessandro Maestri, a 21-year-old righthander from Torre Pedrera, has played professionally in Italy for several years and played in the World Baseball Classic for the Italian national team. Now he’s trying to reach baseball’s highest level after signing with the Cubs in November. His road begins in the Northwest League with the Boise Hawks.

While Italy is known for its success in soccer, particularly after taking the World Cup for a fourth time in July, baseball has been part of the country’s sports culture since World War II, when American soldiers taught the game to local citizens.

The first Italian League tournament was played in 1948, and Italy was one of the first countries in the Confederation of European Baseball, which was founded in 1953. Italy also boasts a baseball academy in the Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball Academy in Tirrenia--of which Maestri is a product.

The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder started the season working out of the bullpen for the Hawks, utilizing a low-90s, two-seam fastball and a tough slider to combat batters. He’s also working to master a changeup.

In his American professional debut, Maestri faced eight batters and gave up just one hit. His record stood at 1-1, 3.46 so far in 13 innings, with 10 strikeouts, three walks and just eight hits allowed.

“For me, it’s a great experience,” Maestri said. “Where I come from, we just play like two times a week, on the weekend. Here we’re expected to play every day, and every day is a chance to learn something new.”

Ready For His Close-Up

While the Cubs were successful in signing the young lanciatore, Maestri said the Mariners and Twins had also approached him when he was younger. The Mariners signed the first Italian hitter to play in the United States in Claudio Liverziani, who signed in August 1996 and hit .251 in two seasons in Class A before returning to Italy.

“When I was 18, after the European Championship, the Mariners came to me and Minnesota came to me, but I was not ready when I was 18, so I said no,” Maestri said. “Finally, the Cubs asked me last November, and I felt ready then, so I said yes.”

It was a major decision, Maestri said, but because he felt he was ready he said it was not a hard one to make.

“It’s something I wished for all my entire life,” he said. “It wasn’t tough. My parents agreed with me.”

His road to the United States has been filled with top international competition, which has helped him develop as a player.

Maestri began playing for Italys’ national teams at the age of 12. He pitched for Italy in the 2002 World Cup in Canada and the 2003 European Championship in Holland. In September 2004, he was one of 10 players who joined the FIBS Academy.

There, Maestri got the opportunity to practice every day, lifting weights and working on his conditioning in the morning, and perfecting his technique and mechanics in the afternoon.

William Holmberg, a staff member at the academy and a European scout, not only coached Maestri but also signed him for the Cubs.

“He’s a really great coach,” Maestri said. “I worked all winter with him.”

Taking On New Challenges

Maestri has already reached the highest level of Italian professional baseball, playing his rookie season in the Serie A1 league in 2005, working first in the bullpen and moving into the rotation for the T&A San Marino club by midseason. Serie A1 is a nine-team league that plays a 54-game schedule.

Maestri finished the season with a 3-1, 2.97 record in 61 innings, striking out 41 batters. In the 2005 playoffs, Maestri went 1-1 and struck out 14 in 22 innings, though he gave up 13 earned runs in that time and walked 11.

This isn’t Maestri’s first time to the United States. He played for the Italian team that came to the United States on a friendship tour last season, playing against New England Collegiate League teams as well as Team USA. He also made the Italian national team in the World Baseball Classic, though he appeared in just two games and recorded two outs. Still, the experience made an impression on him.

“It was amazing,” he said. “They treat you like a big leaguer.”

The big league treatment is a long way off for Maestri now. After signing with the Cubs, he spent time at the team’s training complex in Mesa, Ariz., pitching in extended spring training before heading north to Boise when the Northwest League season opened.

And while Idaho might not be an athlete’s top destination, Maestri said he likes the area because there aren’t any distractions, which allows him to just focus on baseball.

“I’m really glad to be here . . . It’s a great thing for me,” he said.

And with the way he’s pitching, it’s a great thing for the Hawks too.



NEW YORK (PENN) STATE OF MIND

• The Hudson Valley Renegades didn’t get to enjoy Evan Longoria for very long. The Long Beach State standout and third overall pick in the June draft by the Devil Rays, Longoria was promoted to high Class A Visalia at the end of June. He hit .424-4-11 in 33 at-bats with the Renegades.

• Righthander Daryl Thompson is regarded as one of the top pitching prospects in the Nationals system, but now he’s back playing for the Vermont Lake Monsters as part of his rehabilitation after shoulder surgery. The 20-year-old was drafted out of high school in 2003 and spent the last two seasons in the low Class A South Atlantic League. He struck out eight in his first five innings of work, allowing two hits and two earned runs.

• Righthander Adam Ottavino, a first-round pick of the Cardinals out of Northwestern, picked up his second win with the State College Spikes, throwing six innings and giving up one hit. The 20-year-old had not allowed an earned run in his first 19 2/3 innings of work and had 19 strikeouts.

• The Cardinals moved catcher Jason Motte to the mound after Motte showed them over and over that he had above-average arm strength and receiving skills, but would not hit in pro ball. A 19th-round pick out of Iona in 2003, Motte had a .190 career average in 612 at-bats, with a 23-204 walk-strikeout ratio. He picked up his third save July 9 as a pitcher at State College and has made eight appearances on the mound.

• Jacob Ruckle is off to an impressive start with the Brooklyn Cyclones. On July 6, he came within one out of a one-hitter against the Staten Island Yankees. He retired 16 consecutive batters at one point during the game and extended his scoreless streak to 16 2/3 innings, bringing his ERA down to 2.61. Ruckle began the season at high Class A St. Lucie and went 4-3, 1.60 before coming down to Brooklyn.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST

• It doesn’t look like David Freese is going to cool off anytime soon. The Eugene Emeralds third baseman had an eight-game hitting streak and led the league with five home runs and 26 RBIs, and he already had a seven-RBIs game. He was on pace to shatter the Northwest League RBI record held by Robert Davis, who batted in 83 runners in 1971.

• Eugene Emeralds pitcher Adam Cowart also was off to a sizzling start, going 3-0 in three starts with a perfect 0.00 ERA. In 16 innings he had given up four hits and one walk, while fanning eight.

• Giants third-rounder Clayton Tanner made his pro debut with two scoreless innings for short-season Salem-Keizer in the Volcanoes’ 9-0 victory against Vancouver. Tanner, a lefthander whose fastball hit 92 mph in the spring, skipped Rookie ball to make his pro debut.

• Rockies righthander Shane Lindsay is definitely regaining strength. He struck out 12 in five scoreless innings in Tri-City’s 2-0 victory against Spokane, the second time he had struck out 12 in a game this season. Lindsay also dominated the Northwest League last season, but he’s back in the league rehabbing a shoulder injury this year. He had 29 strikeouts (and 13 walks) in 25 innings and was 2-2, 2.19 overall.

• The Everett Aquasox went through major roster changes when several of their top players were promoted. Closer Brian Kappel had five saves in seven appearances and had not allowed an earned run, so he moved up to low Class A Wisconsin. Righthander Juan Colon, catcher Adam Moore and outfielder Kuo Hui Lo were also promoted to Wisconsin. Moore led the team with nine doubles and had batted .317, while Lo had a team-high 10 RBIs and eight stolen bases.

APPALACHIAN TRAILS

• Shortstop Tommy Pham got off to a good start in his professional debut at Johnson City, going 10-for-29 with two doubles and a triple. Pham was a 16th-round pick and one of the top prep prospects in Nevada this spring. Originally a Cal State Fullerton signee, he has instead opted to sign with the Cardinals.

• Travis Snider, the Blue Jays’ first-round pick in June, got off to a strong start with Pulaski. He was batting .280-3-13 with two doubles, and he already produced his first grand slam on July 9 against the Princeton Devil Rays. The grand slam helped him out of a 2-for-16 slump. Snider was a first team High School All-American at Jackson High (Mill Creek, Wash.) and helped the team to a Washington state title, a 27-0 record and a No. 2 national ranking.

PIONEER SPIRIT

• Righthander Steven Johnson was showing strong stuff with the Odgen Raptors, striking out 27 in his first 17 innings this season, including outings when he fanned nine in 4 1/3 innings and 10 in seven innings. He was 1-1, 2.08 overall. Johnson, a 13th-round pick out of high school in Maryland in 2005, spent the early part of the year in extended spring training and saw a little bit of action with Double-A Jacksonville while he waited for the Pioneer League season to begin. He made just two appearances with the Suns, striking out three and giving up two hits in five innings.

• The Idaho Falls Chukars went through roster upheaval when righthander Erik Cordier moved up to low Class A Burlington. Cordier, a second-round pick in 2004 whose career has been slowed by knee problems, went 1-0, 3.38 with 19 strikeouts in 16 frames with the Chukars to earn a promotion. Righthander Romas Hicks, the Royals’ 22nd-round out of Georgia State in June, also left the team as well to continue his rehabilitation at home in Georgia. Hicks has a groin injury and hasn’t pitched professionally yet. Help will come in the form of third-round pick Blake Wood, who debuted July 5 and gave up three hits and a run in 1 1/3 innings against Orem. Wood went 11-4 and worked 115 innings with Georgia Tech this spring, so he will not have a heavy workload.

• Like the Chukars, the Orem Owlz also made adjustments to their roster. Starting pitcher Anthony Ortega moved up to low Class A Cedar Rapids after striking out 10 in 11 innings and surrendering only one run. The Owlz received righthander Amalio Diaz and lefthander Leonardo Claderon to bolster their staff. Diaz began the season in extended spring and was expected to open in the Rookie-level Arizona League, but he was called up to high Class A Rancho Cucamonga for an emergency start and performed so well that he stayed on for four starts. He went 3-0, 1.52 for the Quakes.

COMPLEX ISSUES

• Third baseman Adam Coe was putting up big numbers in the Gulf Coast League with the Braves, leading the league with four home runs and 16 RBIs, and ranking among the batting leaders with a .340 average. Coe, a seventh-round draft pick in June, was a great hitter for Russell County High School in Seale, Ala., batting .445-22-52 as a senior.

• Righthander Kyle Drabek, the 18th overall pick in June, signed with the Phillies and will begin his professional career in the GCL. Drabek was expected to break in slowly, with a few short outings and batting practice. Drabek is the son of 1990 National League Cy Young Award winner Doug Drabek. and throws a hard curveball and a fastball that has reached 97 mph. At The Woodlands High in suburban Houston, Kyle went 14-0, 1.00 as a pitcher with 155 strikeout in 91 innings. He also played shortstop and hit .441 with 12 home runs as The Woodlands streaked to the national high school title.

Compiled by Kristin Pratt