Despite losing 5-1 to three-time defending Euro champ the Kingdom of the Netherlands and settling for second place in the 2019 European Baseball Championship in Bonn, Germany on September 15, 2019, Team Italy has qualified for the Europe-Africa Olympic Qualifier in Bologna and Parma from September 18-22, 2019. The top five finishers of the Euro championship (the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Israel, and Czech Republic) along with South Africa will compete for one berth to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
In the battle for the 2019 European Baseball Championship title, Team Italy manager Gilberto "Gibo" Gerali called on Chicago Cubs pitching prospect Luis Lugo. The talented 25-year-old left-handed starter entered the European Baseball Championship Final coming off an impressive win five days prior against third-place finisher Spain when he pitched 6.2 innings and allowed just one earned run on six hits with five strikeouts and one walk.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands countered with promising 19-year-old Minnesota Twins pitching prospect Donny Breek, who did not allow a hit until the the bottom of the fifth inning when Team Italy catcher Alberto Mineo hit a solo home run high atop the trees in right field. The Team Italy offense was held in check by the Kingdom of the Netherlands reliever Tom Stuifbergen, who limited the Azzurri to a double by Drew Maggi and a single by Chris Colabello.
Team Italy pitcher Luis Lugo had trouble finding the strike zone in the top of the first inning when he granted back-to-back walks to Cincinnati Reds prospect Calten Dall and former MLB outfielder Roger Bernadina. After a brief visit to the mound by Team Italy pitching coach and former MLB pitcher Dennis Cook, the lefty hurler dug deep and struck out former St. Louis Cardinals prospect Curt Smith. Then Sharlon Schoop, a 32-year-old veteran minor leaguer and the older brother of 2017 MLB All-Star Jonathan Schoop, grounded into textbook double play executed by Team Italy third baseman Erick Epifano who made a force out a third base before a quick relay throw to first baseman Chris Colabello to get pitcher Luis Lugo out of a jam.
Luis Lugo looked strong pitching the top of the second inning with a strikeouts of Cleveland Indians catching prospect Sicnarf Loopstok and 33-year-old former minor leaguer Kalian Sams. He then threw an easy one-two-three out third inning before encountering some turbulence in the top of the fourth inning. After an infield error by third baseman Erick Epifano and an ensuing wild pitch, Curt Smith got into scoring position. Then Luis Lugo struck out Dutch cleanup hitter Sharlon Schoop before walking Baltimore Orioles prospect Ademar Rifaela and Sicnarf Loopstok to load the bases for Kalian Sams, who hit a grand slam to give the Kingdom of the Netherlands a 4-0 lead. Former minor league infielder John Polonius added another home run to give the Dutch a commanding 5-0 advantage.
In the top of the fifth inning, Team Italy skipper Gibo Gerali summoned Chicago Cubs pitching prospect Matteo Bocchi, who threw a scoreless inning with one strikeout. Toronto Blue Jays catching prospect Alberto Mineo clubbed a solo moonshot well clear of the right field fence to put Team Italy on the board and cut the deficit down to four runs.
Reliever Matteo Bocchi returned to pitch a scoreless sixth inning before handing the ball off in the top of the seventh inning to lefty Yomel Rivera, who tossed a scoreless inning with one strikeout. Team Italy made a valiant attempt to get something started in the bottom of the seventh inning with back-to-back singles from Federico Celli and Erick Epifano off Dutch reliever Mike Bolsenbroek. A walk to Sebastiano Poma prompted a call to the bullpen and relief pitcher Kevin Kelly to enter the game with bases loaded facing John Andreoli, who came up empty when popping out to shortstop to end the inning.
Former Los Angeles Angels pitching prospect Nick Pugliese came in to pitch scoreless eighth and ninth innings. He allowed just one hit and one walk while striking out five batters. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Erick Epifano recorded his second hit of the night with a single, but on this night the Italians could not rally to make a dramatic comeback like did against Germany and Israel during the 2019 European Baseball Championship. Although a 5-1 loss to the Kingdom of the Netherlands was a tough pill to swallow, Team Italy's Sebastiano Poma was recognized as the best hitter of the 2019 European Baseball Championship.
Team Italy may be down but not out. The Azzurri baseball squad travels to Parma for the Europe-Africa Olympic Qualifier opener against South Africa at Stadio Nino Cavalli on Wednesday, September 18 at 8 pm. Team Italy plays against Czech Republic at Bologna's Stadio Gianni Falchi on Thursday, September 19 at 8 pm. The Italians return to Stadio Nino Cavalli in Parma for a pair of games beginning with a clash against Israel on Friday, September 20 at 8 pm followed by a contest against Spain on Saturday, September 21 at 8 pm. The rematch between European baseball powerhouses Italy and the Kingdom of the Netherlands takes place at Stadio Gianni Falchi in Bologna on Sunday, September 22 at 8 pm. The top finisher in the round-robin tournament earns the right to be the lone Europe-Africa representative in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Forza #Italia! #LetsMakeItHappen #RoadtoTokyo
by Roberto Angotti