GUADALAJARA, México – Italy came within three outs of an incredible upset, but Miguel Cabrera delivered a tape measure home run in the ninth inning as Venezuela advanced to the second round of the World Baseball Classic. The 4-3 victory put an end to an impressive performance by the European nation and marked the final game of Marco Mazzieri’s managerial career.
The story in the early innings once more featured the heroics of John Andreoli as Italy jumped out to an early lead yet again. Andreoli was moved to the leadoff spot with Brandon Nimmo injured with a hamstring strain, and jump-started Italy in the bottom of the first with a ground rule double to deep right centre. Daniel Descalso drove him home with a single, his fourth RBI in five games.
It appeared that Italy might coast to a win thanks to A.J. Morris, who was making the spot start with several Italian pitchers unavailable. The righthander, who made his MLB debut with the Reds last season, was every bit the ace that Italy needed to defeat Venezuela. Morris was almost perfect through five innings and did not allow a baserunner until the fourth. In fact, Morris faced the minimum number of hitters in his appearance.
Alas, WBC pitch counts came into effect, and Mazzieri dipped into his ‘pen. Out came Trey Nielsen, who walked Alcides Escobar to start the sixth. A throwing error by Descalso, his second of the tournament, put two runners on, and Ender Inciarte tied the game with a RBI-single to right.
After a scoreless innings for each nation, it was time for the John Andreoli Show in the seventh. With one out, the Cubs’ minor leaguer propelled another ball into the gap in right centre, but this time, the ball carried out and Italy was once more on top, 2-1.
In a tournament filled with rollercoaster innings and surprising finishes, the ninth inning did not disappoint. Mike DeMark, who had an exceptional year as the York Revolution’s closer, took the mound for Gli Azzurri.
With Venezuela needing a miracle, up stepped Miguel Cabrera. The 2012 Triple Crown winner fouled off a pitch and then crushed the second delivery from DeMark over the wall in dead centre field to tie the ballgame and draw the entire Venezuelan team out of the dugout.
With only two pitchers remaining in the bullpen for Omar Vizquel, Italy’s chances would increase as the hour got later, and Mazzieri’s men needed to merely survive the rest of the frame. Alas, DeMark walked Víctor Martínez before giving up another bomb, this time to Rougned Odor. Fortunately for Italy in the moment, the ball only just stayed in the field, and the umpires reviewed the play, determining that it had not left the park. The long single did score Yangervis Solarte, pinch running for Martínez, all the way from first.
González greeted new pitcher Frailyn Florian by ripping a ball into the left field corner and Odor took third. A great tag by Descalso at second caught González sliding past the second base bag, the second time CarGo overstretched a double.
Vizquel then surprised Italy with the signal for a suicide squeeze that Alcides Escobar and Odor executed perfectly. By the time Florian picked up the bunt, Odor had already crossed the plate with the third run of the innings, and Venezuela led 4-2.
“That was something that we [prepared] in the dugout before,” explained Vizquel after the game. “Everybody knew what they were going to do, and it worked to perfection.”
That was all for Venezuela and, with Francisco Rodríguez on the hill to close out the game, Italy’s chances of advancing had suddenly dissipated. Not to be stymied, Alex Liddi stepped up to start the last half of the ninth and connected on a fastball from K-Rod, driving it to deep centre and over the wall to narrow Italy’s gap to one.
The stage was set for a repeat of two nights earlier, when Venezuela’s closer blew leads in consecutive innings to Italy, but Rodríguez recovered to get two outs, and none other than Andreoli stepped up with the hopes of an entire nation on his shoulders. Andreoli worked the count to 2-2 before putting the ball in play to the left side, but a strong throw from Martín Prado ended the threat and Venezuela poured onto the field to celebrate.
“I think the homer by Miguel woke everybody up in the dugout. It was like losing 150 kilos off the back,”remarked Vizquel after the game. “I remember when I played in Game 7 of the World Series in 1997. That night before the game it was really stressful, and I hadn’t felt that way again until last night.”
“You know, I’ve had butterflies all over my body every day, and we finally came up with a win,” continued Vizquel. “And wow, we keep coming back from behind. The team never dies. We kept fighting until the end, and they’re telling us what a great opposition [we are]. They’ve been fighting the whole time, and it was a great ballgame.”
“Just right now I’m sure you understand that I am in low spirits because we thought we could win this game,” countered Mazzieri. “But we came up short. That team out there [Venezuela] is pretty good. It’s an All-Star team.
Miguel Cabrera has been known to us. He’s been doing it for 15 years now. It’s all right. We’ll take it. We’ve got to swallow it. It’s not going to be easy, but eventually we have to.”
I asked Mazzieri whether having one final game for the second night in a row was hard. “From some point of view, actually not. I think I let it all out yesterday, so tonight it’s a little different. But as I told my guys before the game, I’ve got to make an official announcement that I’m coming back from retirement just for that game or going into San Diego. So we had a laugh all together. Yesterday was a lot harder from my point of view.”
Venezuela collected only five hits in the contest, while Italy had seven, but struck out 12 times and was only 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position. Andreoli and Descalso each had a brace of hits, and the former hit .316 with a 1.192 OPS in the tournament.
“About Andreoli, that kid is just incredible to me,” commented Mazzieri. “He’s so prepared, so much detail. He hustles all the time. Just a leader.”
Morris struck out five in five no-hit innings, and six other pitchers took the hill for Italy, with Nielsen taking the loss. Vizquel pushed all the right buttons on his limited staff, as Venezuela strung together Omar Bencomo, Deolis Guerra, and José Alvarado to set up Rodríguez. Bencomo struck out five in three innings, but Italy failed to capitalise on six baserunners, scoring only one against the righty. Guerra (2 2/3 IP, 0R, 3K) and Alvarado (2 1/3 IP, 1R, 4K) were excellent in relief.
Venezuela will face the United States on Wednesday at 6 p.m. PDT (2 a.m. GMT). The second round matchup will take place in Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres, and @extrainnings_bb will have live coverage, interviews, photos, and more as the road to crowning a world champion continues.