After a win over Nicaragua and a pair of losses to Australia and Chinese Taipei, Team Italy Juniors manager John Cortese knew it was a must-win game against Canada in the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) U18 Baseball World Cup in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada on September 4, 2017. Despite the scoreboard reading Canada 6 and Italy 5 at the end of the tightly-contested battle, the underdog Azzurri played with heart throughout the game. After the heartbreaking loss, Team Italy U18 skipper John Cortese expressed how proud he was to be the manager of such a special group of baseball players.
Shaking off any signs of pressure prior to the game, the Team Italy U18 squad gathered on the field together arm-in-arm in a circle like a family that has been together for years with a sense of purpose before a sold-out crowd at Port Arthur Stadium under the lights. What was said in the huddle proved to be inspirational to the young Italian athletes as they played exceptionally well against Canada.
While other national teams have bonded over time in preparation for the U18 World Cup, Team Italy is the exception to the rule. In many ways, this 12-country international tournament is a laboratory experiment for Azzurri mentor John Cortese since he and his coaching staff have not had the luxury of seeing their players in pressure situations or in some cases even meeting their players on the roster prior to the competition. For example, Milwaukee Brewers pitching prospect Michele Vassalotti, who started and won Team Italy's opener against Nicaragua, flew directly from Venezuela to Canada to meet his coaches and teammates for the first time. Because the Italian federation is still in its infancy in developing homegrown baseball talent by way of the national academy in Tirrenia (near Pisa) and is in dire need of financial support to grow the game, the national team recruits Italians living and playing abroad to strengthen the squad.
Meanwhile back in Thunder Bay, rain showers and high winds did not discourage the hardcore and loyal Team Italy supporters from showing their fighting spirit by waving Italian flags even though they were outnumbered by Canadian fans 100 to 1. In fact, those were probably the odds of Team Italy upsetting Canada (ranked #10), but the Azzurri were not fazed by the improbable on this chilly night. Before the first pitch was thrown, the Italians believed in their abilty to win and control their own destiny by executing their game plan of competing to the very best of their ability.
Team Italy manager John Cortese called on pitcher Gabriel Dall'Agnese to start the game against Canada. The right-handed hurler looked good in the first inning striking out two batters and keeping the Canadians off the scoreboard. He was equally impressive in the second inning when he escaped a bases loaded jam by striking out his fourth batter of the game to end the scoring threat. The Team Italy offense came to life in the bottom of the second inning when Azzurri slugger and Cincinnati Reds prospect Leonardo Seminati connected with a Giancarlo Stanton-like home run blast over the left head fence to give Italy a 1-0 lead.
In the top of the third inning with one out and bases loaded, Team Italy starting pitcher Gabriel Dall'Agnese was relieved by Oscar Tucci. The crafty left-handed reliever struck out the first batter he faced but gave up an RBI single to make it a 1-1 tie ballgame. Lefty Oscar Tucci returned for a scoreless fourth inning.
A Team Italy rally ensued in the bottom of the fourth inning when catcher Riccardo Bertossi reached first base on an infield error, and Ricardo Paolini doubled down the right field line. After first baseman Leonardo Seminati was intentionally walked to load the bases, Riccardo Flisi came through in the clutch with a two RBI single to center field to give Italy a 3-1 lead. Team Italy threatened to score even more when a perfectly-executed sacrifce bunt by Filippo Daddi put two runners in scoring position for third baseman Daniel Monti, who unfortunately struck out to end the inning.
Canada came back in the top of the fifth inning to score one run off reliever Oscar Tucci. With a slim 3-2 advantage, Team Italy needed some insurance runs fast. With two out in the bottom of the fifth inning, Gabriele Angioi walked and Riccardo Bertossi singled to center field. Both runners advanced one base after the Canada center fielder committed an error fielding the ball. With two baserunners in scoring position, opportunity knocked for the fighting Azzurri. Canada went to their bullpen for a lefty-lefty matchup against second baseman Ricardo Paolini, who responded with a two RBI double which reached the center field fence. With Italy now leading 5-2, Canada took no chances throwing to international home run derby champion Leonardo Seminati. The Canadians once again intentionally walked the promising MLB prospect to face center fielder Riccardo Flisi instead. The coaching strategy proved effective as a fielder's choice ended the inning and prevented further damage.
Team Italy relief pitcher Oscar Tucci ran into a bit of trouble when he surrendered another run in the top of the sixth inning, but the strong Azzurri defense behind him preserved the 5-3 lead. Team Italy manager John Cortese had enough confidence in his reliever to bring Oscar Tucci back to pitch the seventh inning. As always, the Team Italy defense had Oscar Tucci's back late in the contest. Shortstop Gabriele Angioi robbed the Canada leadoff hitter of a single when he dove in the dirt to field a ground ball and got to his feet quick enough to fire a rocket which beat the runner to first base for the first out of the inning. Then he leaped high up in the air to catch a line shot to record the second out. As if that was not enough ballistic warfare, Gabriele Angioi later fielded another ground ball and threw an absolute missile to first baseman Leonardo Seminati to end the top of the seventh inning.
Defensive wizard Gabriele Angioi performed more magic at the plate when he singled to center field to begin the bottom of the seventh inning. Riccardo Bertossi followed with an infield single, but both baserunners were left standed on base without scoring. Pitcher Oscar Tucci returned in the eighth inning to sillence the Canadian offense; however, Canada had other plans. After a textbook bunt single that straddled the third base line, a walk, and a two RBI triple, Canada tied the game 5-5. With the go-ahead run 90 feet away, Oscar Tucci battled back to keep Canada from taking the lead.
In the top of the ninth inning, it was Oscar Tucci's game to win or lose. Unfortunately, the resilient pitcher hit the first batter he faced. Team Italy manager John Cortese had seen enough and summoned Ricardo Paolini to replace Oscar Tucci on the mound. With no out and a man on first, Canada sacrificed to move the runner to second base. Reliever Ricardo Paolini walked the next two batters to load the bases. In the end, the Canadians took a 6-5 lead after a sacrifice fly to left field yielded the go-ahead run. Everyone in the stadium knew that Team Italy worked too hard to give up and lose the game without a fight. In the bottom of the ninth inning with two out, Riccardo Bertossi was the last hope for the Azzurri, and he delivered with a single to center field. But to the delight of the hometown crowd, Ricardo Paolini flew out to left field to seal the win for Canada.
Team Italy returns to Baseball Central on September 5th to play Korea (ranked #3). Watch the live stream of the battle between Italy (1-3) and Korea (4-0) beginning at 2 pm (Eastern Time Zone) here: https://www.youtube.com/embed/0F6lQ2ByZVo Forza #Italia! #U18WorldCup #ThunderBay2017
by Roberto Angotti