PUERTO RICO ELIMINATE ITALY
By Gabriel Fidler
It was a different night but the same story for Italy in the World Baseball Classic.
After taking the lead on a big hit, this time by Anthony Rizzo, Italy wasted the efforts of an intrepid starting pitcher and allowed its opponent to come back late against their bullpen. Once more, their experienced closer, Jason Grilli, sat idly in the bullpen as a more experienced opponent chipped away at the lead before taking it for good. This time it was Puerto Rico who was the beneficiary, as it took advantage of sloppy play by the Italians in the late innings to claim a 4-3 win. In the process, Puerto Rico narrowly escaped elimination and is now one win away from qualifying for the semifinals of the WBC.
Italy finished 2-3 in the 2013 Classic. Both starters were effective in the early innings. Italy sent Alex Maestri, the country’s top Italian-born hurler, to the mound. After a leadoff double to Ángel Pagán, Maestri set down the next nine hitters, five by ground ball, working low in the zone with a tight high-70s/mid-120s curveball and slider combination, mixing in a fastball that hit 90/145 consistently. Giancarlo Alvarado was nearly as effective for Puerto Rico.
Relying heavily on a high-80s/low-140s cut fastball that he located well, the right-hander gave up a hit in the first three innings, but got out of each inning unscathed. Puerto Rico’s best threat early in the game was the fourth. Irving Falú worked a seven-pitch walk and went to third on a one-out single by Yadier Molina.
Maestri threw a wild pitch to move Molina into scoring position, but the righty got Mike Aviles and Álex Ríos on outs to the left side of the infield. Alvarado started to wear down in the fifth. Anthony Granato stroked a single to right with one out and went to second on catcher interference by Molina. Nick Punto reached on the play. Chris Denorfia had a one-base hit to load the bases, and Alvarado exited the game. Xavier Cedeño came in with the sole purpose of getting out Anthony Rizzo, the Azzurri’s top hitter, but grooved a fastball that the first baseman ripped to the gap in right centre.
All three runners crossed home, and Italy had a 3-0 lead. José de la Torre, who struck out the side with a runner in scoring position only one night before, came in to face the dangerous combination of Alex Liddi and Chris Colabello, and a ground ball and a strikeout to escape the threat.
Maestri left the hill after getting into a jam in the fifth. Chris Cooper relieved with runners on first and second and one out, and got Pagán and Falú out to preserve Italy’s three-run advantage for another frame. Hiram Burgos was the new pitcher for Puerto Rico and got three quick outs. Cooper gave up a hit with one out to Yadier Molina in the bottom of the sixth. He advanced to second on an error by Granato at shortstop and, with two down, another miscue by Granato gave Puerto Rico its first run. Cooper finally acquired the third out to keep the score at 3-1.
Neither side threatened in the seventh as Burgos and Cooper turned in strong innings, though Italy nearly struck against Burgos in the eighth. The Milwaukee Brewers’ minor leaguer gave up two hits with two outs, but stopped the rally with a ground ball out. Cooper would not be so fortunate in the bottom of the inning. He was pulled after walking a slumping Carlos Beltrán, who went to third on a hit by Molina. With Grilli still not warming, Marco Mazzieri, Italy’s manager, elected to bring in veteran change-up specialist Brian Sweeney to face Aviles and Ríos.
He got Aviles to erase Molina on a force out, but then allowed a RBI-single to Ríos to make it a one-run game. Pat Venditte relieved and got the second out at a price, inducing a fly out to centre that score Aviles with the tying run. Italy’s centerfielder, Chris Denorfia, threw the ball home from deep centre, and Ríos went to second on the throw. Andy González bounced a ball deep into the hole at shortstop and it eluded a diving Liddi, the third baseman. Jack Santora, who had entered as a defensive replacement for Granato, made a nice play to snag the ball, but the long throw to first pulled Rizzo off the bag, and Ríos sprinted from second and score untouched. Italy’s mental mistakes continued after a hit to Eddie Rosario, as Santora threw to third on a grounder by Pagán.
The toss was high and González slid in safely to load the bases on the Azzurri’s third error. Venditte bore down and got Falú for the third out, but all the air had been visibly sucked out Italy’s collective lungs. Burgos stayed in for the first two outs, both retired by strikeout, though the first was on a 3-2 count to Punto, who thought it was ball four and ran all the way to first before someone told him he had been ruled out. Southpaw J.C. Romero came in to get the left-handed Rizzo.
Rizzo walked, but Fernando Cabrera got Liddi to go down swinging for the first out. Italy out-hit Puerto 9-8, but its three errors were the death blow to its chances of advancing in the bracket. Denorfia had three hits and Rizzo reached base three times, but the team and was 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position and left 10 men stranded. Liddi and Colabello, both of whom had key hits earlier in the Classic, were 0-for-8 with four strikeouts, leaving seven men stranded. Italy struck out 11 times. Molina had a three-hit day for Puerto Rico, who also left 10 men on base, hitting .067 with runners on second or third. It received strong pitching from Alvarado and Burgos in particular. Puerto Rico’s starter went 4 1/3 innings, scattering five hits and a walk while allowing two earned runs.
Alvarado whiffed four. Burgos, who earned the victory, threw 3 2/3 scoreless frames, striking out four. He allowed three hits and issued two free passes. Maestri toed the rubber for 4 1/3 shutout innings, striking out three. He surrendered three hits and two walks. Cooper was solid, allowing only a hit and a walk in 2 1/3, notching one K. Sweeney took the loss, giving up Puerto Rico’s final run and getting only one out. Italy will return for the 2017 World Baseball Classic, while Puerto Rico will take on the loser of the matchup between the Dominican Republic and the United States. That game will take place on Mar. 15 at 7 p.m. EST.