PHOENIX — His teammates on the Chicago Cubs teased Anthony Rizzo when the first baseman left the club a few days ago to play for Italy in the World Baseball Classic.
“See you on Sunday,” they said.
Few gave Italy a chance in a pool that also contained the United States, Mexico and Canada. But after edging past Mexico on Thursday and manhandling Canada on Friday, Italy put itself in a strong position to advance to the WBC’s second round in Miami next week.
The Italian players stormed the diamond at Chase Field in wild celebration after Mario Chiarini’s eighth-inning single made it 14-4 and ended the shocker on the mercy rule.
“Probably the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced on a baseball field before,” said first baseman Christopher Colabello, who went 4-for-5 with a home run and four RBI.
Colabello’s face was smeared with celebratory shaving cream following a second straight win that nobody saw coming.
Italy? Baseball? Don’t laugh.
The Italians have won the European championship 10 times, including back-to-back titles in 2010 and 2012. Still, they had never advanced past the first round in either of the first two WBC events and were casually regarded as the weakest of the four teams in Pool D.
Even one of the budding program’s most ardent supporters, former All-Star Mike Piazza, was saying privately that, realistically, Italy had “no chance.”
Now the Italians are all but assured of reaching Miami with a roster that isn’t stuffed with as many major-league players as some of the other countries.
They have Rizzo, a product of Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, as their designated hitter. Their roster also includes Nick Punto, a 35-year-old backup infielder with the Dodgers, Padres outfielder Chris Denorfia and Pirates reliever Jason Grilli.
But they managed to put together a team that, though largely faceless and undistinguished, doesn’t lack for talent. The roster features seven Italian born and raised players, as well as a handful of minor-leaguers with Italian roots.
When asked how he cobbled together his WBC roster, manager Marco Mazzieri smiled while answering: “Let’s put it this way. We got some connections. We’re Italians.”
Rizzo, whose two-run double in the ninth inning on Thursday spelled the difference in the 6-5 upset of Mexico, qualified for the team because his great grandfather came to the United States from Sicily at the turn of the last century. Colabello’s father pitched professionally in Italy and met his mother there.
“They can play,” Rizzo said of his teammates. “They didn’t come here to just take in the sun and enjoy Arizona. You can tell they’re prepared and ready to go. This isn’t going to be some rollover event. Talking to some of the guys, they feel kind of disrespected the way they’ve been treated internationally, and they have chips on their shoulders.”
If they didn’t command the respect of Mexico and Canada – and everyone else looking on – they have now. They battered a Canadian team that featured Joey Votto and Justin Morneau, pounding out 17 hits.
Italy’s next opponent is Team USA, which it will face Saturday night.
On Friday, though, the Italians were reveling in a second surprise victory.
Asked if winning the World Baseball Classic would mean as much to Italians as winning the World Cup in soccer, Chiarini could only smile.
“If we shock the world, maybe,” he said.
Chiarini knows baseball takes a distant back seat to soccer in his country. But a strong showing in the WBC could move his sport into the spotlight in a way it’s never experienced before.
“The media are going to talk a lot about this,” Chiarini said in his broken English. “Hopefully, the longer we stay in the tournament, more people speak about it. We have no fear to play at the high level. We have a chance to shine.”