Short tournaments are nothing like the long regular season grind. The law of averages tends to catch up over 162 (or not, if you’re the Baltimore Orioles.) In a short tournament, anything can happen. Any team can sneak past a formidable opponent on guile and luck and the bounces of a round bat striking a round ball.
Italy doesn’t have the most talented roster in the World Baseball Classic. They have a few good players and, relative to their better decorated opponents, a whole lot of chaff. But the Italian team scraped through the first round, skating by on the strength of some soft tossers and timely hitting.
Through seven innings in their elimination game against Puerto Rico, Italy kept the magic going. The Puerto Ricans failed over and over with runners in scoring position and Italy held a 3-1 lead. Then all hell broke loose.
A four pitch walk to Carlos Beltran, a solid single to right by Yadier Molina put runners on the corners. Mike Avilés grounded into a fielder’s choice, allowing one run to score. Then Alex Rios fisted a single to right field, on which Avilés made an aggressive first-to-third dash. Aviles’ willingness to “put pressure on the defense” was a telling omen for the next few plays and the fate of the Italian baseball team.
A sacrifice fly allowed Avilés to score, though Italian center fielder Chris Denofria made a bad throw to the plate that allowed Alex Rios — running the bases very much unlike the blissfully oblivious gazelle Blue Jays fans came to loathe — to take an extra base. Rios then showed MORE heads up base running, scoring from second on a ground ball that Italian shortstop Jack Santora couldn’t handle cleanly.
The comedy of defensive errors and miscues came with the best Italian pitcher, Jason Grilli, firmly seated on the bullpen bench. Despite clinging to a lead against the meat of the Puerto Rican order due up, despite kicking the ball around and appearing desperately in need of a strikeout, Italian manager Marco Mazzieri refused to put his best pitcher in the game.
The Cinderella run is over the Italy, an ugly loss that just might overshadow the big wins over Mexico and Canada in the previous round. Two straight blown leads, both of which would be more difficult to take had they not felt so inevitable.
The Puerto Ricans scammed and hustled their way into a shot at the semis. Puerto Rico awaits the loser of the USA/Dominican Republic game tomorrow night, with the winner heading to San Francisco. Their lineup has a lot of name recognition but the pitching is a suspect. But who cares? They’re still alive and one more win from moving on.
Profar, So Good for Holland
Take that, team cohesion narrative. After hinting earlier in the week that he wanted to play, Rangers star prospect Jurickson Profar will indeed join the Dutch team in San Francisco for the WBC semifinal. As expected, Profar replaces the injured Yurendell de Caster on the roster and figures to take de Caster’s place at third base.