PUERTO RICO’S LATE RALLY GIVES ITALY THE BOOT
Three-run spurt in eighth inning helps stave off Classic elimination
By Joe Frisaro
MIAMI — Team Puerto Rico survived the hard way on Wednesday night. On the brink of elimination, Puerto Rico rallied with three runs in the eighth inning to defeat Italy, 4-3, in front of 25,787 at Marlins Park.
Puerto Rico was four outs away from exiting the World Baseball Classic but managed to prevail, tying the game on pinch-hitter Luis Figueroa’s sacrifice fly and going ahead on Andy Gonzalez’s infield single. “With the lineup that we have, it was a matter of time before we started scoring runs,” Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said. “Of course, everybody was kind of putting a little bit of pressure on themselves. So the staff has to fake it and try to make it look like we’re all calm and everything was under control. I think we did a good job of doing that. The guys went out there, and they made that happen.”
Italy was eliminated from Round 2 in agonizing fashion. The Italians had a three-run lead slip away on Wednesday, after seeing a four-run lead disappear in a 5-4 loss to the Dominican Republic on Tuesday. The Italians grabbed the lead in the fifth inning on Anthony Rizzo’s three-run double.
Now that Italy’s journey has ended, Rizzo, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native and the Cubs’ first baseman, is glad he was part of the surprising run. “We had a lead in every game we played in this tournament,” Rizzo said. “No one scripted us to be where we are, playing against the best teams. There’s a handful of All-Stars on every team and we had the lead in every game. We all stayed together, and I think the respect that we earned in this tournament is well-deserved for the entire country of Italy.”
Puerto Rico, now 1-1 in Round 2, still is in a must-win situation. But it moves on to Friday and awaits the loser of Thursday’s Team USA-Dominican Republic game. While Puerto Rico is waiting to see who it will play, it has announced Nelson Figueroa will be the starting pitcher.
In its emotional comeback, Puerto Rico did all the things necessary to prevail in the tournament. “That’s how you win the World Series,” catcher Yadier Molina said. “By playing as a team. Pitching as a team. Hitting as a team and playing defense as a team. That’s what we did today.” All the traits were needed to close out a tightly played game. Hiram Burgos threw 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief, including two strikeouts in the ninth inning.
With one on, Fernando Cabrera recorded a one-out save. Considered the team least likely to succeed in Round 2, Italy was scrappy but ended up not being able to hold late-inning leads. Carlos Beltran got the eighth-inning rally going for Puerto Rico with a walk. Molina’s single put runners on the corners. A fielder’s choice groundout by Mike Aviles scored Molina, making it a 3-2 game.
Alex Rios’ single put runners on the corners with one out. Brian Sweeney relieved Pat Venditte, and Puerto Rico brought in Figueroa to pinch-hit. His sacrifice fly to center tied the game. On the play, center fielder Chris Denorfia threw home, which allowed Rios to take second. Getting into scoring position was huge. Gonzalez tapped a grounder in the hole that was fielded on the backhand by shortstop Jack Santora.
His throw across the diamond hopped, and Rizzo was unable to hold on. Rios scored from second on the play, and Puerto Rico’s bench was in full celebration. “I saw [Rios] rounding,” Rizzo said. “I figured if I can pick that — it was going to be a tough hop. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to stay on the bag, so if I could pick it, I’d be able to throw him out.” For Italy, it was a tough way to go home.
Each starting pitcher has spent time in Japan, and both were effective. Puerto Rico starter Giancarlo Alvarado, who pitched in the winter leagues in the offseason, has spent the past three seasons in Japan. Italy countered with right-hander Alessandro Maestri, who also pitched last season in Japan. In the fifth inning, the Italians snapped the deadlock on Rizzo’s three-run double. Anthony Granato started the rally with a one-out single, and Nick Punto was awarded first on catcher’s interference.
Molina was charged with the error when his glove was clipped on Punto’s swing. Denorfia’s single loaded the bases and ended Alvarado’s night. Rodriguez played the percentages, bringing in lefty Xavier Cedeno to face the left-handed-hitting Rizzo. Rizzo batted .208 in 2012 against southpaws for the Cubs, compared with .318 while facing right-handers. Those splits were rendered meaningless, as Rizzo ripped a liner into the gap in right-center, clearing the bases.
In the sixth inning, Puerto Rico capitalized on two errors by Granato at shortstop and made it 3-1. Molina singled and Aviles reached on an error.
With two outs, Granato booted Carlos Rivera’s grounder for his second error, which scored Molina. “You have to give credit to the Italian team because they have one heck of a team,” Molina said. “But what we came with, the work of Hiram, of Giancarlo, all the [pitchers], we were able to win. We hope that on Friday it will be the same thing.”