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MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Italy opening eyes with Classic breakthrough

Italy opening eyes with Classic breakthrough

PHOENIX -- Several hundred words should be said here on behalf of the outstanding play of Team Italy.

Team Italy lost to Team USA, 6-2, Saturday night in the first round of World Baseball Classic play. But by virtue of earlier victories over Mexico and Canada, the Italians had already earned advancement to the tournament's second round.

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Team Italy deserved this result. This club played fundamentally strong baseball. It made all the requisite defensive plays. It moved runners. It produced key hits. And it consistently had pitching that was capable of getting outs against Major League hitters.

Before first-round play started, this team would have been regarded as a distant fourth out of four in Pool D. But after seeing Team Italy in three games, there was little doubt that not only did it belong here, it also belonged in the second round.

It was a breakthrough performance for Italian baseball.

"I think what we showed tells a lot," said Marco Mazzieri, manager of Team Italy, on Saturday night. "I think we played a pretty good game tonight. We couldn't pitch ahead in the count in the middle part of the game, and that's what hurt us.

"But I think these guys went a long way to show that we deserve a little bit more respect from anybody here."

The Italian squad includes some longtime, proven Major Leaguers, not stars but performers of reliable usefulness. Among those would be infielder Nick Punto, outfielder Chris Denorfia, catcher Drew Butera, reliever Jason Grilli. There are also players who have briefly reached the Majors. There are players who have had substantial careers mostly in North American Minor League baseball. Japanese professional baseball is represented on this roster. So is the Mexican League.

There is one genuine candidate for Major League stardom on the roster, first baseman Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs. But looking through much of this roster, you will find Italian Baseball League places of employment such as Parma, San Marino, Bologna.

Apparently, the rest of us ought to get on board and realize that the term "Italian baseball," represents a growth situation. Team Italy, for instance, won the 2010 and 2012 European Championships.

For those Americans who still scoff at any baseball played outside the conventional confines of North America, Italy's 6-5 victory over Mexico, not to mention the 14-4 mercy-rule drubbing of Canada, might help put the overall Italian baseball situation in sharper definition.

Mazzieri has obviously done a commendable job of putting together a cohesive team. He has also assembled an impressive coaching staff, including the all-time home run leader among catchers, Mike Piazza, plus former Major League manager Tom Trebelhorn and 14-year Major Leaguer Frank Catalanotto.

When Mazzieri was asked if he could have expected the kind of results his team produced here, he replied:

"Results, I don't know, but I know what we were getting as far as people. And I love my team. I love all my players. We got a great coaching staff and we knew we were going to do well. How well? We couldn't tell. But we prepared to do well. And actually these guys just executed and it couldn't be any more perfect.

"The idea was to bring over the core group of players that won the European Championship last September in the Netherlands. And then we would add those guys that were with us four years ago in the Classic, like Punto, like Denorfia, like Grilli, those guys. And for the few extra guys that were missing to get to the 28-man roster, I kind of chose the guys that really wanted to be here. The guys that were only not only good players but also good people that could in some ways mesh into this group.

"There's no place for egos in this group, and that's what I was looking for. That's what I'm getting. We're very happy about it. And that was the idea. I believe a lot in energy, positive energy, and I just try to direct that energy in one direction. And these guys have been outstanding."

"Outstanding" is a fair description of Italy's performance in this round of the World Baseball Classic. The excitement this team created was genuine, the victory that it achieved was meaningful. Punto, who has played in three MLB postseasons and won a World Series with the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, said:

"To get to celebrate with new teammates like we did today is always special. This is a playoff atmosphere, March 8 or wherever we're at right now, and it's exciting baseball."

This team created that excitement with a winning brand of baseball. Some of the best parts of the three World Baseball Classics have occurred when our eyes were opened by the quality of baseball played by teams from somewhere other than North America. Team Italy has provided that quality in the 2013 Classic.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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