Grilli fries Aussie bats as Italy rolls

by Matt Meyers
March 8, 2006

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.–When the San Francisco Giants made Jason Grilli the fourth overall pick in 1997, it was with the expectation that he would be a front-of-the-rotation starter in the big leagues. While that has yet to happen, he dominated like one tonight as Italy enforced the mercy rule against Australia with 10-0 victory in seven innings behind dominant pitching from Grilli and Riccardo De Santis, and some powerful hitting from Mark Saccomano and Vince Sinisi.

From the outset, Grilli was clearly in top form as he fanned Australia’s first two hitters looking. From there he was on cruise control as he would allow only one hit over 4 2/3 innings while fanning seven (five looking) and walking none on just 57 pitches.

“He was lights out tonight,” Italy second baseman Frank Menechino said. “He was throwing strikes and keeping them off balance. That is what we need–he didn’t waste a lot of pitches. We are always concerned about these pitch counts, but he went right after them and made them swing the bat and we made all the plays in the field. He did a great job.”

With Grilli tying the Aussies up in knots, his Azzurri teammates gave him plenty of run support. Peter Zoccolillo got it started when he walked with one out in the second and moved to third on single by Saccomanno on a perfectly executed hit and run. Zoccolillo scored on a groundout to first by Dustin Dellucchi, and after leadoff man Tony Giarratano walked, Menechino drove home Saccomanno and Giarratano with an double down the left-field line.

After Menechino’s double, Australia manager Jon Deeble removed starter John Stephens after just 1 2/3 innings. The righthander has had a solid minor leaguer, succeeding with excellent command of below-average stuff. In 1,100 minor league innings, he has walked just 236 batters, but Tuesday night he walked three.

“I was just missing my spots, but not by much,” Stephens said. “A couple of inches and it could be a different game, but I need those inches.”

Stephens’ replacement, lefthander Paul Mildren, did not fare much better. The Marlins prospect allowed two runs of his own in 1 2/3 innings before giving way to lefthander Adam Bright, who surrendered an opposite field two-run home run to Saccomano, a former Baylor star and current Astros farmhand, in the fifth to make it 7-0.

While Australia’s pitchers struggled, Italy’s flourished. De Santis, one of four native Italians on the team, replaced Grilli with two outs in the fifth and threw 2 1/3 no-hit innings of his own to combine with Grilli on a seven inning one-hitter.

“I didn’t think I would pitch in the first game; I thought they would send somebody else. But when they called me I was ready,” De Santis said. “I have talked a lot with Mike Piazza and all of the other big leaguers, and they have made me feel like one of them.”

Sinisi, a Rangers farmhand, added a two-run bomb in the sixth, and when Italy tacked on its 10th run in the bottom of the seventh the game was over. World Baseball Classic rules stipulate that a first- or second-round game is over if a team is ahead by 10 or more runs when the opposing team has batted in at least seven innings.

With a victory under its belt, Italy’s Thurs night showdown with Venezuela becomes very intriguing. With its loss Tuesday, Venezuela needs to win its next two games to advance while Italy can basically punch its ticket with a victory.

If there was ever a scenario in which the Azzurri could upset Venezeula, it was set up perfectly tonight. Thanks to the extremely efficient performances from Grilli and De Santis combined with only having to play seven innings due to the mercy rule, Italy will have its full compliment of arms available to face Venezuela.

“The Dominican team is tough, so we really have to go for it tomorrow,” Menechino said. “I think it will help us a lot that we did not have to use our pitchers.”

The starter will be lefthander Lenny Di Nardo who split time last year between Triple-A Pawtucket and Boston. In the pen will be big leaguers Mike Gallo and Dan Miceli along with David Rollandini, who starred for Italy in the 2004 Olympics.

“We are not going to change our approach, but we were fortunate to only have to use two pitchers,” Italy manager Matt Galante said. “We are able to have some bodies tomorrow that we might not have (had we not pitched so well).”

Pitching is only half the equation, however, as Venezuela’s pitching staff is made almost entirely of big leaguers while Australia has none. In Piazza and Catalanotto, Italy boasts a couple of accomplished big league hitters. It is unclear if the easy victory was an indication that Italy is swinging the bats well or if it was just feasting on weak pitching, but Galante is optimistic it is the former.

“When tougher pitching comes along it might get tougher, but I’m confident we can put up some runs,” he said.

When asked directly what Italy needs to do to beat Venezuela, Piazza stressed “not giving away outs,” and the entire team seems to understand just how important defensive execution will be if it hopes to upset Venezuela and become the first truly surprise team to advance to the second round.

“The pitching and defense are gonna be huge,” Menechino said. “They have Freddy Garcia and (Kelvim) Escobar and they are pretty nasty. We are going to have to stick with them until we get their good pitching out of there, stay in the game until it gets late.”