Resilient Italy answers Mexico to claim win
Two-run ninth inning off Giants closer Romo sets up victory to open Pool D
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Anyone skeptical of the World Baseball Classic's ability to create drama wasn't watching Thursday afternoon's game between Italy and Mexico.
The doubters weren't watching Italy closer Jason Grilli bark at the home-plate umpire when he didn't get a third-strike call with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, setting up a showdown with Mexico's captain, slugger Adrian Gonzalez of the Dodgers.
They weren't watching when Grilli got Jorge Cantu on a bases-loaded groundout to seal a come-from-behind 6-5 victory at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick -- an enormous Classic upset on the first day of Pool D play -- and his team celebrated on the field around him as if they'd won a World Series game.
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And they weren't watching when Giants closer Sergio Romo, who excelled in the actual World Series last year, had to walk off the mound in this memorable page-turner of a game as the blown-save losing pitcher.
Italy catcher Drew Butera of the Minnesota Twins said the excitement level of the game was hard to describe.
"Once you experience it for yourself," Butera said, "it's on a completely different level."
Mexico manager Rick Renteria said the mood in the Mexico clubhouse after the game was deflated and he had to remind them that it's not over, although his team is 0-1 and facing a tough task on Friday at 9 p.m. ET (7 p.m. local time) against the United States at Chase Field.
"They take this to heart," Renteria said. "You could see the emotion Italy had when they came out on top. … You know what? Tomorrow's another day. Keep your heads up, because we battled."
Both teams battled, and despite the in-game pitch counts forced by the playing of this tournament during Spring Training, the intensity burned even hotter than advertised.
Mexico appeared to have the game filed away for safekeeping, with a 5-4 lead heading into the ninth and World Series hero Romo ready to close it out in good order.
Romo got one out before Major Leaguer Nick Punto (Dodgers) doubled, National League West rival Chris Denorfia (Padres) singled pinch-runner Stefano Desimori to third and Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo provided the biggest hit of the day, hitting a towering fly ball to the warning track that went in and out of the glove of Mexico left fielder Edgar Gonzalez for a go-ahead two-run double that had Team Italy celebrating in front of its dugout.
Rizzo said he thought it was a home run at first but knew it was at least a sacrifice fly. Then the ball popped onto the turf.
"Fortunately," Rizzo said, "we all got lucky."
Grilli got a bit lucky, too, after loading the bases on a single, the walk he wasn't happy about (but Butera later admitted was a good call) and a hit batsman (Adrian Gonzalez), but he got the job done for a team that refuses to be taken lightly.
Italy's manager, Marco Mazzieri, reiterated Grilli's claim that Italy has "got people." The skipper said the team has planned all along to get to the final round in San Francisco and won't believe for a second that his players are not capable of doing so, contrary to what most tournament predictors believe.
"We came with a purpose," Mazzieri said. "And this is just one game out of a long journey."
It might not have ended up in the win column for Italy if not for one big hit by Butera.
Italy was trailing, 4-2, in the fourth inning after Mexico had jumped on Italy's starter, John Mariotti, with three runs in the first inning, answering Italy's surprising two-run first inning against Mexico's starter, Rodrigo Lopez, a veteran Major League right-hander currently in Phillies camp. Mexico added a run in the second.
Butera tied the game off Red Sox reliever Alfredo Aceves with a shot onto the grass berm beyond the left-field wall and pumped his fist wildly as he rounded first base.
"Maybe, yeah, I think it gave us a little momentum going into the middle part of the game," Butera said of the homer. "But I think, at the same time, it was a collective win.
"And give it up to the whole team. We battled our tails off today."
Mexico answered Butera's blast, though, taking its final lead in the fifth on an RBI double by Luis Cruz of the Dodgers and protecting the lead with scoreless innings by Oscar Villareal (in Red Sox camp) and Fernando Salas (Cardinals), but Italy did what the Detroit Tigers couldn't do last October: they beat Romo.
Now Team Italia is 1-0 and heading to Chase Field for Friday's 2:30 p.m. ET game against Canada, a club the Italians beat in the last World Baseball Classic, in 2009. They're confident and, as evidenced by their resilient performance Thursday afternoon, prepared.
"This is a good team," Mazzieri said. "And I think that we deserve a little bit more respect than what we have been getting so far, honestly."