GUADALAJARA, México – Four years ago, Italy punched its ticket to the second round of the World Baseball Classic after a ninth-inning comeback to beat México. Tonight, México appeared to have taken revenge in a back-and-forth slugfest, but Italy launched an unforgettable five-run final inning to steal victory from the host nation’s grasp. John Andreoli put the finishing touch on a sensational come-from-behind victory with a walkoff, two-run infield single, and Gli Azzurri erupted from their dugout in the first game of Group D.
The storybook comeback, which stunned press and fans alike, also adds to a noteworthy WBC subplot. The victory makes European countries 6-1 in the 2017 Classic, with the Netherlands and Italy (affiliated with the Confederation of European Baseball) already qualified for the second round.
With the score at 4-4 after four and 7-5 México after five, no one in the stadium would have been surprised to know the game would be decided in the ninth, but that was before México’s vaunted bullpen relieved struggling Yovani Gollardo and completely shut down Italy in innings six through eight.
After a beautiful opening ceremony, the game got started with a leadoff home run by Esteban Quiroz off the otherwise excellent Alex Maestri. Andreoli, a Cubs’ minor leaguer, answered with a solo roundtripper of his own in the bottom of the frame against Gallardo, setting the tone for the game.
The two starters matched 1-2-3 frames in the second, before México scraped together an unearned run against Maestri, a Quiroz double plating the Aztecas’ second run. Italy’s manager Marco Mazzieri dipped into his bullpen with one out in the fourth, bringing in relief ace Tiago da Silva. Maestri went 3 1/3 innings, surrendering only on earned run on three hits and no walks. Of his 10 outs, eight were of the groundball variety as Italy turned two key double plays.
Japhet Amador jumped on da Silva’s second offering for a mammoth blow out of left, and México looked to be pulling away with a Sebastián Elizalde RBI-single later in the frame.
Rob Segedin erased two runs off México’s 4-1 lead with a titanic shot to right centre that scored Daniel Descalso, and it was obvious Italy would not fold early.
México continued to pile it on Italy’s ‘pen, however, as Pat Venditte surrendered three runs in the fifth, despite not given up a single well-struck ball. The big blow was a Luís Cruz bloop double.
Though the breeze was light, the dry air in the mountainous State of Jalisco caused balls to carry, and Drew Butera added Italy’s third home run to once more enliven the visitors in the bottom of the fifth.
The game changed tone completely as the air grew slightly more humid and the temperature dipped from warm to balmy in the middle innings, and México appeared to put the game out of reach against A.J. Morris in the seventh.
Morris was superb in the sixth, but lost Amador on a walk with two outs an inning later and loaded the bases on a walk, a wild pitch, and an intentional walk, before Mike DeMark gave up a two-run single to Elizalde.
It appeared that would be all for Italy, as they struggled against the Aztecas’ impressive line of dominant relievers in Vidal Núño, Carlos Torres, Joakim Soria, and Sergio Romo. Those four combined for four innings of one-hit, one-walk, four-strikeout ball.
Édgar González made the decision to put the game on ice in the ninth. México’s manager sent Blue Jays’ closer Roberto Osuna to the mound with a 9-5 lead to put the final nail in Italy’s coffin. Instead, it was sheer pandemonium as the Blue-and-White started the frame with back-to-back-to-back doubles.
Francisco Cervelli led off with a nice liner to left centre and showed inspired hustle to narrowly beat the throw into second. Chris Colabello followed with a rocket to the wall in deep left centre, which certainly would have left the park in the early innings. Sebastiano Poma, pinch running for Cervelli, had to hold up in case of a catch, but Italy still had runners on second and third and no outs.
Alex Liddi, the first player raised in Italy to crack the big leagues, played hero as he has many times before. He punched a double down the third base line that only just stayed fair and bounced all the way into the corner, and suddenly the scoreboard read 9-7.
As González frantically got Oliver Pérez up in the bullpen, Osuna was the victim of bad luck, inducing a bouncer to short that handcuffed Cruz, and the righty then faced pinch hitter Drew Maggi, a seven-year minor leaguer.
Maggi showed the discipline of a seasoned player against Osuna’s electric stuff, eventually working a 10-pitch walk to load the bases. Pérez was ready by this point, and entered to face Mets’ prospect Brandon Nimmo, 0-for-4 thus far in the game.
Nimmo, Italy’s leadoff man, stroked a safety to right to score Liddi and set the stage for Andreoli. México’s skipper pulled the infield in to protect the 9-8 lead, and Andreoli ripped a ball that Luís Urías could only deflect, plating Butera. Mazzieri had the win in sight, though, and Maggi raced home all the way from second for the incredible 10-9 victory.
All told, five runs crossed the plate in the ninth, with none retired by Osuna and Pérez. Osuna did not give up more than two runs in a game during the entire 2016 season on the way to 36 saves and a 2.68 ERA. Yet in international play, tonight’s contest proved once more that past performances and statistics can be entirely discounted.
“We were winning 9-5 in the last inning,” Édgar González told the press after the game. “They are all closers from the Big Leagues, and I don’t see anything that could have been different. We were up 9-5 with the best closers in the Big Leagues. You cannot do anything different.”
Speaking with Mazzieri on the way out of the stadium, Italy’s skipper was still dumbfounded, but pointed out that the rally all came down to Maggi. “Maggi was incredible, fouling off pitches and staying in the box. He really rattled [Osuna].”
“For some reason, any time Italy wins, it’s a big surprise,” remarked Mazzieri earlier in the post-game press conference. “It’s been like that for eight years now. The only ones that are not surprised, it’s these guys, because they’re playing to win.”
Andreoli, who reached Triple-A in his age-26 season, was 2-for-5 with three RBI to lead the Blue-and-White in his international debut. Colabello, a hero of Italy’s 2013 Classic run, added a brace of hits, as did Butera.
Jordan Romano, who tossed a strong ninth inning for Italy, striking out Amador looking and fellow former big leaguer Chris Roberson swinging, earned the victory in his first international appearance. Romano is an intriguing prospect in Toronto’s system and is only just finding his way back from Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss the 2015 campaign.
The story from México’s standpoint was Gallardo’s rough outing and the resounding silence in the middle of the order. Gallardo, coming off a brutal 2016 for the Orioles, lasted four innings and struck out five, but gave up four runs and three dingers. Meanwhile, Adrián González, greeted with riotous cheers every time he was announced combined with Brandon Laird to go 0-for-10 with eight left on base and two strikeouts.
México now has the dubious task of needing to beat, in all likelihood, either Venezuela or Puerto Rico to ensure it is not relegated for the second consecutive Classic. They will face Puerto Rico first, in the nightcap of an 11 March doubleheader at Estadio de los Charros.
“I don’t think it’s a different approach,” explained González on the task ahead. “We played good baseball. They’re pitchers [at a] very high level, and that will help them to better adjust, and that’s going to help [us] improve.”
Italy will next take on Venezuela, with a win all but certainly qualifying them for the second round.
“When you win a game like this it makes you feel good with yourselves,” concluded Mazzieri. “But even though this game wasn’t going to be the way it went, I think we battled, we fought, and we were going to have the same attitude going into Venezuela in two days.”