Italians put a scare into Team USA
By John Manuel
SYDNEYAfter Wednesday's win against Korea, Team USA manager Tom Lasorda deadpanned, "I'm scared to death of the Italians."
The Italian-American Lasorda was celebrating his 73rd birthday Friday night at Homebush Baseball Stadium, and apparently his players weren't scared enough of Italy. The Europeans, whose only win of the tournament came against doormat South Africa, spotted the Americans two runs in the first, tied the game in the fourth and looked to be in position to hand Team USA its first loss.
But in the bottom of the eighth, the Americans scored two runs on Italy's birthday present to Lasorda. Starting pitcher Battista Perri walked two runners with two out, and reliever Jason Simontacchi, the Italians' ace and a former U.S. minor leaguer, threw away a potential inning-ending grounder, plating the winning runs as Team USA survived 4-2. The victory clinched a berth in the medal round, which will feature the United States, Cuba, Japan and a fourth team to be determined in the next two days of play.
"Why don't you play like this all the time?" Lasorda asked Italy manager Silvano Ambrosioni after the game. The night was supposed to be Lasorda's, and it was. Former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley was one of many on hand to celebrate Lasorda's big day, but the Italians came ever so close to spoiling it.
"I lost my voice from yelling so much," Lasorda said, "because this was a tough, tough game. We were lucky to win tonight. But tomorrow when you look at the standings, it will say, 'United States of America, 5-0.' "
It also will say: Saturday's Games: Cuba vs. USA, 7:30 p.m., Homebush.
"That's the game you guys have been talking about for five games," said Team USA right fielder Ernie Young (Cardinals), who drove in the game's second run and scored the game-winner. "We'll find out about Cuba tomorrow. But we won't know what happens until we play them."
Team USA's only loss of its Olympic exhibition series came in its fifth game against the Netherlands, and the other European representative had its chance as the Americans may have looked past Italy (1-4) in preparation for Cuba. Left fielder Mike Neill (Mariners), though, preferred to give Italy the credit.
"I don't think Cuba is as good as everybody says they are, but by the same token, some of these other teams aren't as bad as everybody says they are," Neill said. "There's a lot of parity in the tournament."
Team USA was forced to get its third victory in its last at-bat. Batti, whose fastball topped out at 81 mph, got the first two outs of the eighth easily on grounders. Then Young, who had two of Team USA's six hits, walked on five pitches. Batti then walked slumping DH John Cotton (Rockies), who hasn't had a hit since his five-RBI effort against South Africa three games ago.
The second walk brought Simontacchiwho beat South Africa and was being saved for Italy's game against the rival Dutchto the mound to face third baseman Mike Kinkade (Orioles). On a 1-1 pitch, Kinkade hit a dribbler to the left of the mound that Simontacchi fielded cleanly, but his throw sailed over the head of first baseman Dan DiPace. With the ample foul ground at Homebush, both runners scored easily.
Ryan Franklin (Mariners) got the win with two shutout innings of relief, while Todd Williams (Mariners) got his first save. It was Franklin's third win of the Olympics, tying the Team USA record set in 1996 by University of Virginia righthander Seth Greisinger. Franklin soon may adopt the nickname of U.S. pitching coach Phil Regan, who was known as "The Vulture" during his big league career for his knack for getting relief wins.
"Phil and I joked about it a little," Franklin said. "It's just getting in at the right time, but you also have to do your job and not let the other team score."
Franklin relieved Ben Sheets (Brewers), who once again pitched well but didn't get a decision, leaving with the score tied 2-2. Sheets went six innings, giving up four hits and one walk while striking out three. He pronounced himself ready to pitch Team USA's final game in the medal round.
His teammates scored two runs quickly, unlike its first two games at Homebush. Against both Japan and Korea, the Americans waited until late in the game to score, getting its first runs against Japan in the seventh inning and all of its runs against Korea in the eighth. Against Perri, Team USA didn't wait.
Second baseman Brent Abernathy (Devil Rays) singled to lead off the bottom of the first, and Team USA put runners at the corners when Brad Wilkerson (Expos) singled to right on a hit-and-run. Neill brought home the first run with a fielder's choice. He advanced to second on Perri's errant pickoff throw and came home on a single by cleanup hitter Young.
Italy responded in the fourth against Sheets, scoring two runs without the benefit of a hard-hit ball. Catcher Chris Madonna, a former independent leaguer who played at the University of North Carolina, looped a double down the right-field line and came around to score on a similar bloop hit by former minor leaguer David Sheldon. Another American national, DiPace, hit into a fielder's choice for the first out, went to second on a groundout and moved to third on a wild pitch. With two out, DH Luigi Carrozza beat out a bleeder up the middle, and the Italians had forged a tie.
After the first, Team USA got very few good cuts against Perri, failing to wait on the righthander's assortment of offspeed pitches. The United States stranded runners, wasted hitter's counts and generally looked out of sorts against the weakest pitcher they'd seen outside of South Africa.
"Their pitcher tonight, he was just throwing strikes and spotting his pitches, sinking it a little, but it was just sitting up there," Neill said. "I don't remember when I faced somebody throwing that slow, and I feel like I'm a good offspeed hitter, but I would swing hard and hit it off the end of the bat. And as the game went along and we weren't scoring, guys start getting tighter and tighter."
They finally got to unwind when Williams got pinch-hitter Dan Newman to ground out to end the game, triggering a Lasorda birthday celebration that included postgame cake in the clubhouse. Italy's close call made things tight but couldn't spoil the party.
Italy 2 (1-4) USA 4 (5-0) AB R H RBI AB R H RBI Liverziani rf 3 0 1 0 Abernathy 2b 4 1 2 0 De Franceschi cf 4 0 0 0 Wilkerson cf 4 0 1 0 Madonna c 3 1 1 0 Neill lf 3 1 0 1 Sheldon 3b 4 0 1 1 E. Young rf 3 1 2 1 DiPace 1b 3 1 1 0 Cotton dh 3 1 0 0 D'Auria 2b 4 0 0 0 Kinkade 3b 4 0 0 0 Carrozza dh 4 0 1 1 Dawkins ss 0 0 0 0 Frignani lf 3 0 0 0 Mientkiewicz 1b 4 0 1 0 Newman ph 1 0 0 0 Jensen c 3 0 0 0 LaFera ss 2 0 0 0 Everett ss/3b 2 0 0 0 Perri p 0 0 0 0 Sheets p 0 0 0 0 Simontacchi p 0 0 0 0 Franklin p 0 0 0 0 T. Young p 0 0 0 0 Williams p 0 0 0 0 Totals...... 31 2 5 2 Totals...... 30 4 6 2 Score by innings: R H E ---------------------------------------------- Italy 000 200 000 - 2 5 2 USA 200 000 02 - 4 6 1 ---------------------------------------------- E - Perri, Simontacchi, Everett. LOB - Italy 6, USA 6. 2B - Madonna. SH - Liverziani. SB - Abernathy. CS - DiPace. K - De Franceschi, Sheldon 2, D'Auria, Carrozza, LaFera, Wilkerson, Kinkade, Jensen 2. BB - Madonna, DiPace, LaFera, Neill, E. Young, Cotton, Everett. IP H R ER BB SO WP BK HP IBB AB BF Fly Gnd Perri L 0-1 7.2 6 4 1 4 4 0 0 0 0 28 32 9 9 Simontacchi 0.1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 2 0 1 Sheets 6.0 4 2 1 1 3 0 0 0 0 22 23 6 8 Franklin W 3-0 2.0 0 0 0 2 1 0 0 0 1 5 8 3 2 T. Young 0.0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 Williams S,1 1.0 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 3 3 0 1 PB - Jensen. T. Young faced 1 batter in the 9th. Umpires - Home:Hsieh 1st:McCabe 2nd:Poulton 3rd:Koyama Start: 7:30 pm Time: 2:33 Attendance: 13,912
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