Wednesday, March 11, 2009

WBC Update #2

For Saturday’s game versus Team USA, the pro-Canadian crowd exceeded 42,000 and provided a considerable amount of energy to their strong effort and near upset of the bracket’s favorite. On Monday night, in an elimination game against lowly Italy, only 12,000 were in attendance. Was it because a victory over the Italians was a foregone conclusion? Apparently not, as Italy pulled off a 6-2 upset to knock the hosts of the Toronto bracket out of the tournament.

Italy scored single runs in each of the game’s first four innings, with center fielder Chris DeNorfia plating the first run on an infield single, doubling and scoring the third, and doubling home the fourth run. Overall, the Oakland Athletics prospect was 4-for-4, with three doubles, a walk, RBI and two runs scored.

Trailing 4-0 in the bottom of the 4th, it looked like Canada’s vaunted offensive attack was poised to get them back in the game when Joey Votto, Justin Morneau and Jason Bay started the inning with three consecutive doubles. But, the two runs those hits produced were all the scoring the Canadians would generate for the entire game, as Mark Teahen and Pete Orr would strike out to spoil that rally, and the team would be held to just three hits and three walks for the remainder of the game.

Italy used only three pitchers in the game, with left-handers Dan Serafini and Chris Cooper playing critical roles in shutting down Canada’s predominately left-handed lineup. Right-hander Jason Grilli pitched effectively as well, after a rough outing against Venezuela in the opener, pitching the final 3 1/3 innings and allowing no runs on just one hit and two walks, while striking out two.

After the loss, Team Canada is left to ponder what overall was a disappointing showing, considering the optimism that their upset victory over the USA in 2006—and near upset this year—provided them with. Italy’s celebration was short-lived, though, as it meant another showdown with Venezuela on Tuesday night.

I use the term showdown lightly, though, as the game was anything but. Once again, Tuesday night’s Italy-Venezuela game was scoreless for a few innings, but in the bottom of the 4th, the cream began to rise to the top. After Italy’s starter, Adam Ottavino, was removed following three innings of one-hit, no-run ball, Tiago DaSilva came on and was touched up for four runs—two unearned due to a Nick Punto error on a double-play ball that could have gotten them out of the inning with only one run across—on three hits and a walk, before he was relieved by Kasey Olenberger.

Italy’s third pitcher got out of the 4th without any further damage, but did not fare as well in the 5th. That inning started with back-to-back moon shots from Bobby Abreu and Miguel Cabrera, followed by a Magglio Ordonez double that chased Olenberger. After Italy’s fourth pitcher, Luca Panerati, retired Carlos Guillen, B.J. LaMura came on and was promptly greeted by Jose Lopez’s two-run homer on the first pitch he threw. Five pitches later, Ramon Hernandez added Venezuela’s fourth home run of the inning and the rout was officially on.

Italy did, however, manage to avoid the mercy rule, losing by a final score of 10-1, but I’m not certain they considered that much of a moral victory. As was the case with Saturday’s Venezuelan victory, their pitching staff completely shut the Italians down, with starter Enrique Gonzalez’s four innings of no-run, two-hit ball setting the pace.

A USA-Venezuela rematch on Wednesday night will determine seedings for the next round, but with both teams advancing regardless of the outcome, it will be somewhat comparable to when Major League Baseball staged one-game playoffs to break division ties in which the loser was still going to earn the wild card. Regardless, given the passion of the Venezuelan fans—who significantly out-numbered their American counterparts in Sunday’s game—and the fact that there is something to play for—even if there is zero motivation to go all-out by bringing Jake Peavy back on three days rest, for instance—the game should still provide a good deal of excitement.

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