8:38 PM CST, March 8, 2013
PHOENIX — Anthony Rizzo was walking out of the Cubs clubhouse earlier this week when one of his friends gave him a parting shot.
"See you Sunday,'' he said, referring to the day after Team Italy's last scheduled game.
Rizzo gets the last laugh, however, as well as an extended stay away from Mesa.
To almost everyone's surprise, probably including Rizzo and his Team Italy teammates, the Italians have put themselves in position to enjoy a long shelf life in the World Baseball Classic.
After a ninth-inning comeback victory over Mexico on Thursday night, Italy pounded Canada on Friday at Chase Field. The 10-run mercy rule twice ended the game in the eighth inning, first incorrectly when a Mike Costanzo ground-rule double initially was ruled a grand slam and then a hitter later on a single from Mario Chiarini, a veteran of Italy's pro league.
The 14-4 upset victory that followed Team USA's debut against Mexico put Italy on the doorstep of a trip to Miami for a semifinal pool that probably will include the Dominican Republic and either Venezuela or Puerto Rico. Barring three teams finishing the Pool D round robin with 2-1 records and a cruel result in the run differential tie-breaker, Italy will be on to the next round.
"It has been unbelievable,'' Rizzo said. "I've only been here four days but it was clear to me from the first workout that these guys were focused, they had worked hard to get ready. Now we're on a roll. The intensity is something I've never experienced before. It's every pitch, every inning. It's really cool.''
Rizzo doesn't speak Italian. He never even has visited Italy. Like four others in Team Italy's lineup, he is taking advantage of eligibility rules that extend three generations. He grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but his great-grandfather was Sicilian.
Rizzo and the other imports, most notably leadoff man Nick Punto of the Dodgers, have been very impressed by the talent level of Italian-born players like Chiarini and Alessandro Maestri, a former Cubs minor-league pitcher who pitched effectively for the Orix Buffaloes in Japan last season.
Maestri worked the first three innings against Canada, setting the tone against a lineup that had Joey Votto and Justin Morneau hitting in the 3-4 spots. His fastball frequently hit 91 and he got swings and misses on a lot of breaking pitches.
Was he pitching this well when the Cubs released him two years ago?
"That's a loaded question,'' said Team Italy pitching coach Bill Holmberg, who had signed Maestri when he was a scout for the Cubs. "I don't work for the Cubs now. But Alessandro has been throwing like this for awhile. He is a battler.''
You can say that about most of the players who value the chance to play in the WBC.
"This is important to these guys,'' Italy hitting coach Mike Piazza said. "You can tell by the excitement in the dugout, the enthusiasm. Guys came in sharp and they've been having great at-bats, not swinging at bad pitches.''
Rizzo has had warning track fly balls in both games, including one that bounced off Edgar Gonzalez's glove for a go-ahead two-run double in the victory against Mexico. He drove in Italy's first run Friday with a grounder to second and twice took walks that allowed him to score runs.
"We're just trusting each other,'' Rizzo said. "We have a pretty solid lineup, so guys don't think they have to do it themselves. I have good power behind me with (Alex) Liddi, he has good power behind him with (Chris) Colabello, and he has power behind him.''
Ernie Whitt, the Canadian manager, couldn't have been too shocked. Italy had beaten Canada in Toronto four years ago, which forced the Canadians to have to play a qualifier to get into this year's main draw.
"You have to give Italy credit,'' Whitt said. "We got our (butts) kicked today. … There are some good ballplayers over there.''
Piazza hopes Italy's success in this event will advance baseball's cause in a soccer-crazed country. He believes major league teams will start looking more to Europe for talent after they have exhausted all the back roads of Latin America and Asia.
How big will this victory be in Italy?
"There was a story on our win today in La Gazzetta dello Sports,'' Holmberg said, laughing. "It had been awhile since there was baseball in the newspaper. … Usually the paper starts with soccer for the first 30 pages and all the other sports get the last five. Maybe we'll move up to the 15th page.''
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