BRNO, Czech Republic – Dominant relief pitching and a bit third inning propelled Italy (7-0) to a 9-1 win over Czech Republic on a cool night for baseball at Draci Brno’s stadium. The victory qualified Italy for the European Baseball Championship final against the Netherlands, which Italy will face tomorrow in the playoffs.
Jan Novák, all of 20 years old, started on the hill for the Czechs. The Orioles’ farmhand had allowed two earned runs in a pair of innings with two walks and two strikeouts at the European Championships, but drew his first start for Czech Republic against undefeated Italy. He was backed by a wildly supportive sellout home crowd, who screamed ‘Česky!’ (‘Czechs’) the entire game, punctuated by two drums and numerous vuvuzelas.
To start the game, Juan Carlos Infante bunted his way aboard with a gorgeous dribbler down the first base line for Italy. Jakub Sladek fielded the ball and made a last-ditch flip with his glove to first base, but the needless toss went over the first baseman’s head and Infante went to second. Stefano Desimoni followed with a single to put runners on the corners for Italy and Alessandro Vaglio plated the first run of the game with a sac fly.
Novák then got the second out before losing big leaguer Alex Liddi on a full count to once more give Italy runners at first and third. Novák induced a slow roller to Petr Zyma at shortstop, who picked it up on the run and threw across his body for a bang-bang third out.
Frailyn Florian started on the mound for Italy, having gotten the win against France in the preliminary round at Regensburg. Zyma worked a nine-pitch walk to get things started for the Czechs, but the deceptive Florian picked him off. With two down, Matej Hejma slapped a base knock and went to third on a combination of a stolen base and a wild pitch. Jakub Sladek drew a base on balls, but Florian got out of the jam with a flyout.
Novák looked good in the second, going 1-2-3 on Italy, and getting Cubs’ minor leaguer Alberto Mineo looking on a filthy backdoor curve on 0-2. In the bottom of the frame, Petr Čech led off with a single and went to second on a Jan Drábek sacrifice, but Florian escaped the threat again.
Novák walked the first two batters of the third on full counts before Vaglio laid down a bunt. Sladek the first sacker, hustled to it and gunned out the runner at third. Novák then got Azzurri cleanup hitter Alex Sambucci looking to make it two down. Czech Republic had a chance to get out of the frame without any damage, but after nine pitches, Liddi crushed a ball to the left centre field gap to make it 3-0 Italy. That was all for Novák, who gave up only one hard-hit line drive on his last pitch, in 2 2/3 innings.
Jakob Toufar relieved and watched Mario Chiarini drive in Liddi and swipe second base, coming around on an Mineo safety up-the-middle. Mattia Reginato followed with a fourth-straight hit, plating Mineo with the fifth run of the frame and blowing the game wide open for Italy. At the end of the rally, the score stood at 6-0 in favour of the Azzurri.
The Czechs could get nothing going in the third against Florian despite a leadoff infield hit by Zyma. Toufar walked Infante to start the fourth, and he moved up on a grounder and scored on an error on an easy groundball. Toufar would end the frame with back-to-back strikeouts of Sambucci and Liddi, but the lead increased to 7-0 for Italy.
Florian got out of a jam in the fourth after walking the first two batters, inducing a fielder’s choice and then a double play for Italy. Toufar got two flyouts to start the fifth and then gave up 2 hits, but struck out Infante.
Martin Červenka beat out a hard hit ball that the shortstop muffed to start the fifth. Michal Ondráček then dribbled a ball down the first base line for a hit. Červenka moved to third on a Zyma grounder that erased Ondráček to make one down and Hajtmar struck out against Florian. Matej Hejma then stepped up and on the first pitch drove a ball hard into the ground on the left side of the infield and beat it out for the RBI. The next batter, Jakub Sládek ripped a ball off Florian’s glove which deflected to his right and the Czechs had an incredible fourth infield hit of the inning.
The next man up, Jakub Malik, ripped a 1-1 ball down the left field line that just foul. A few feet to the right and it would have been a grand slam. Instead, it looked to be five infield hits in-a-row as Malik bounced a ball up the middle, but Infante ranged to the second base side to grab it for out number three.
With the Czech team looking like they might have a rally in them, new pitcher Marek Minářik was just what the Czechs needed, shutting down Italy 1-2-3 in the sixth. Florian came out having allowed one earned run on seven hits in five frames with four free passes and a strikeout. He induced a lot of weak contact, much of which managed to find holes, but got the job done and earned the decision.
“I felt like I was throwing really well. Today especially my two-seamer had a lot of movement,” remarked Florian. “I had not worked much with Alberto [Mineo], just a little in the bullpen and in the start against France, but Alberto is really good.”
Filippo Crepaldi entered for Italy and completely shut down a revving Czech offence 1-2-3 in the sixth, with two strikeouts, one looking. Minářik takes a page out of Crepaldi’s book going 1-2-3 in the following inning, including a foul pop on Liddi and a grounder of Mineo. Crepaldi then had another easy three-up, three-down inning in the seventh for Italy.
Minářik running into trouble in the eighth, as Lorenzo Avagnina and Infante stroke back-to-back one-out singles for Italy. A walk to Desimoni by Minářik loaded the bases for Italy. Radim Chroust came into the game for the Czechs and went seven pitches on Vaglio, who eventually fought off a pitch to centre for a two-run single. That was all in the inning, as Chroust gets a groundball and a strikeout for the Czech Republic.
Crepaldi worked another shutout frame, though Jakub Sládek did rip a double to the left centre field wall. The right-handed reliever tossed three innings with four strikeouts and only the Sládek hit against him. Neither side would threaten in their last at bats, with Yovanni D’Amico finishing the game by striking out the side in the ninth.
Italy had nine runs on 11 hits and six walks. They committed no errors. Infante, Reginato, and Avagnina all had multiple hits for the Azzurri. Infante reached base four times from the leadoff spot, scoring three runs and pilfering one of four Italian stolen bases.
Liddi had what would turn out to be the game-winning hit with the two-bagger in the the second, and gave a fist bump as he stood on second. He explained, “I’ve grown up playing with all these days. The biggest thing is playing with your friends; it’s a team game, and wearing ‘Italy’ on my chest is all the matters.”
Czech Republic had one run on eight hits and four walks, committing three miscues in the field. Hejma and Sládek each had a brace of hits for the losers, with the latter walking twice. Novák took the loss after surrendering four runs on three hits and three walks in 2 2/3 innings, whiffing three. Toufar hurled 2 1/3, striking out three, but giving up two earned runs on five hits and a walk. Minářik tossed 2 1/3 innings as well, giving up a pair of runs on two hits and a free pass, getting one swinging. Chroust finished with 1 2/3 scoreless, K-ing three.
With the victory, for the second tournament in-a-row, Italy and the Netherlands will face each other in the playoffs after having already qualified for the championship game. Both sides are undefeated, while the Czechs (4-3) will battle Germany on the final day.
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