PHOENIX -- A week ago, when Italy gathered in the Valley to begin preparations for the World Baseball Classic, Mike Piazza called his team "the underdog of the bracket" that includes Canada, Mexico and USA.
"We're realistic," said the former Dodgers and Mets catcher who is Italy's hitting coach. "We know we have to play exceptional baseball to move on. We know that if we play well we can be competitive."
Well, look at where the Italians are now. After defeating Mexico and Canada in successive afternoon games on Thursday and Friday, they are one modest showing against the U.S. on Saturday night away from moving on to the second round beginning Tuesday in Miami's Marlins Park.
It is a huge leap for Italy, a country that has long been a modest baseball power, but just now is starting to make its mark on the international baseball scene. Their 14-4 victory on Friday at Chase Field was an exclamation point to the Italians' recent success.
"I did a lot of cheering, that's all, and a lot of praying," Piazza said after the game. "The most important thing to say is that everybody who's here wanted to be here. You can just tell by the emotion that guys wanted to participate. They came in in shape. My job is just to fine-tune it a little bit, but these guys are doing all the work."
A win over the U.S. will cement Italy's success in Pool D .
By virtue of the round-robin rules of the first round, the Italians would not only have to lose to the U.S., but be trounced by the 10 runs they won by on Friday to place their movement forward in jeopardy. Those rules not only rely on wins, but on a complicated run-differential formula in the event of a three-way tie. Italy solidified its position by mercy ruling Canada in a game that automatically ended once the Italians took a 10-run lead with no outs in the eighth inning.
The tiebreaker in the event of a two-way knot is results in head-to-head competition, and Italy now owns that position over two of the teams with wins over Mexico and Canada.
Over the last two Classics, with Piazza as the hitting coach, Italy has owned the Canadians, defeating them, 6-2, in the first round in Canada four years ago. In a double-elimination format back then, that loss knocked Canada out of the tournament. Italy was sent home by losing twice to Venezuela.
"There's some interesting strategy in this tournament, it's a little unorthodox," Piazza said. "We have to watch our pitching, and then there's the run differential. We have some [pitchers] rested who are going to be able to pitch tomorrow, but right now we're just going to let it all hang out and play a good game against the U.S. You see from one to nine guys are really battling. It builds great unity and energy on the team."
But Piazza's goal is to reach far beyond the current tournament and toward the future growth of the sport in Europe. The Kingdom of the Netherlands defeated Cuba in the opening game of the second round at Tokyo Dome for both teams. The Dutch and Italians have long been the caretakers of the sport in Europe, and have dominated the championships there for more than 50 years.
In 2009, the Dutch upset the Dominican Republic twice in the first round of the Classic at Puerto Rico, knocking the D.R. out of the tournament. They moved on and were eliminated by the U.S in the second round at Miami. Now the Kingdom of the Netherlands is threatening to insure a spot in the semifinals on March 17-18 in San Francisco's AT&T Park. The final game is March 19.
Piazza played for the Italian team in 2006 when they lost in the first round. What's happened to the Italians in the past two days is just a measure of how far they've come.
"I've been working with the Italians for about four years. I played in the first Classic with them in 2006," Piazza said. "You know, it's a really great and challenging endeavor for me to try and spread the game in Europe beyond where it is now. I'm trying to help with my experience and by teaching. And I'm trying to encourage Major League Baseball to continue to invest money over there. Obviously we've produced a couple of good players. Hopefully it's a process they'll see as a good investment."
For their part, the Italians have just about assured themselves a spot in Miami. How far they are capable of moving on from there is anyone's guess.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.