SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—With the swing of the bat and a bobble, Italy turned Pool D upside down.
With one out in the ninth, runners on first and third, and Italy trailing by a run, first baseman Anthony Rizzo came to the plate against Mexico closer Sergio Romo. He hit a line drive that first landed in and then fell out of left fielder Edgar Gonzalez’s glove near the left-field wall. As Gonzalez scurried to scoop up his bobble, Stefano Desimoni and Chris Denorfia raced home to give Italy a 6-5 lead. Italy reliever Jason Grilli then dodged a bases loaded jam in the bottom of the ninth to secure Italy’s stunning victory in the World Baseball Classic opener for both teams.
The win continues an impressive pattern, as the Italians have won at least one game in each of their three WBC appearances. More important for this tournament, however, it completely opens up the four-team pool that also includes Canada and the United States. The teams play a round robin schedule, and the top two teams advance to the second round.
Team USA remains the favorite in the pool, but with a deep staff of big league pitching and a lineup led by Adrian Gonzalez, Mexico looked like the clear favorite to finish second. That position looked even stronger before the game on Thursday, when Canada announced that it had lost its top righthanded bat when Brett Lawrie dropped out because of a rib injury. Italy’s mixture of Italian professional league stars and a number of U.S. players with Italian ties was a heavy underdog, largely because of the team’s lack of pitching depth.
Now Mexico faces what looks like a must-win game against Team USA on Friday night, while Italy enters its game against Canada with a win in its pocket and its best pitchers available to face Canada and the United States. Alessandro Maestri, coming off of a solid season in Japan, will start on Friday against Canada. Italy has also former big leaguers Dan Serafini and Brian Sweeney fresh and ready to go.
Italy managed to match Mexico out for out with a diverse group of arms. Independent leaguer John Mariotti struggled through 1 2/3 innings, leaving after giving up four hits, two walks and four runs. Tiago Da Silva came in and baffled Mexico’s lineup for 3 1/3 innings with a straightforward approach, using his deceptive delivery to disrupt timing as he threw changeup after changeup, at speeds ranging from slow to slower.
“He has kind of a funky motion, and I think a little deception that helped him as well,” Italy catcher Drew Butera said. “He has a couple of speeds to his changeup. He has one that jumps at you and another one that’s like a Bugs Bunny changeup. It just seems to never get there.”
Once Da Silva reached his pitch limit, Italy held Mexico scoreless for the final four innings with Matt Torra, who spent 2012 in Triple-A; Luca Panerati and Nick Pugliese, both of whom played in the IBL in 2012; and Grilli. It was fitting that Grilli, a three-time WBC vet, got the final three outs for the save. He won Italy’s game against Australia in the WBC in 2006 and saved the win over Canada in 2009.
Grilli got the chance to pick up another save because of a thrilling ninth-inning comeback. Butera’s two-run home run in the fourth tied the game at 4-4, but Mexico retook the lead 5-4 with a Luis Cruz RBI double that scored Eduardo Arredondo. That score held for the next three innings. Italy headed to the ninth knowing that it needed two runners to reach to get the heart of its order of Rizzo and Alex Liddi to the plate.
Team Italia knew it would need big games from its big league hitters, and Rizzo, Liddi and No. 2 hitter Chris Denorfia lived up to Italy’s hopes. Rizzo went 2-for-5 with a run and the 2 RBIs. Liddi was 2-for-3 with a hit-by-pitch and a walk and Denorfia went 2-for-5 with a double and two runs.
After Romo got a quick out to start the ninth, Nick Punto doubled, ensuring that Rizzo would get a final at-bat. Denorfia followed with a single of his own. He had to work for the hit as Romo started him off with back-to-back strikes. Denorfia then watched three pitches just off the plate to work the count to 3-2. From there, he fouled off four pitches before lining Romo’s 10th pitch of the at-bat for a single.
Rizzo also fell behind 0-2. And just like Denorfia, he managed to hang in against the Giants’ closer.
“I was just trying to put the ball in play and get that runner to third in and tie the ballgame up,” Rizzo said. “He left a slider a little bit up. It was outside. The big key is just trying to not do too much.”
The lefthanded-hitting Rizzo went with the outside pitch, lining it to left. Gonzalez appeared to have the ball measured, but he also appeared to be worried about how close the wall was as he stumbled back to the warning track. The ball hit in his glove before falling out, but was ruled a double by the official scorer.
Mexico has advanced to the second round in each of the first two World Baseball Classics. All is not lost for Mexico, but it enters Friday’s game with little margin for error. In 2006, the only other time the WBC used the round-robin format, no team that finished the first round 1-2 advanced to the second round. The same story has been true in the 2013 WBC for the two pools that have already been played in Asia.
Mexico will send its ace, Yovani Gallardo (Brewers), to the mound against Team USA. Gallardo’s spot on the team wasn’t guaranteed until just this week, as he had to demonstrate that he had recovered from a groin strain that had limited him last week. Mexico also has big league starters Luis Mendoza (Royals) and Marco Estrada (Brewers) ready.
Italy isn’t even guaranteed of avoiding relegation to the WBC qualifier yet, but Thursday’s win means a spot in Miami’s second round is a legitimate possibility. The players and coaching staff said they always believed, even if few others did.
“I think overall now there isn’t an easy game throughout the whole world,” Italy manager Marco Mazzieri said. “Once you’re in a game, anybody can beat anybody. That’s what we’ve been telling these guys from day one.”