Whether you're waiting for it or not, the World Baseball Classic is fast approaching. The international shindig kicks off in Tokyo on March 5 and runs through the final at Dodger Stadium on March 23. In an attempt to get you quickly up to speed with what's going on, BLS will be running occasional team previews as the event nears.
Pool: C, Toronto
'06 WBC finish: Fell 8-3 to Dominican Republic; went 1-2 in pool play (beating Australia)
First game: Saturday, March 7 vs. Venezuela
Five questions to ask about Italy
• Is Mike Piazza coming out of retirement for this thing, or what? Fughettaboutit. Actually, in a sense, he is. Piazza, who played for the Old Country in the ‘06 WBC, but retired from the majors after the 2007 season, will be the batting coach. The greatest slugging catcher in history didn't do the Italians much good at the plate in '06; he only had one hit, a double, and no RBIs. Grazie per niente! (Thanks for nothing!) Plus, catching might be the deepest position on the roster. All four guys are in major league organizations: Mike Napoli (Angels), Sal Fasano (Rockies), Vinny Rottino (Brewers) plus Francisco Cervelli, a Yankees prospect.
• Which Italian-Americans joined up, then? Eh, a little of this, a little of that. Napoli, Fasano, plus Mr. Versatile — Frank Catalanotto of the Rangers — and feisty Twins shortstop Nick Punto — the Original Piranha — probably are Team Italia's best position players. Italy has other (relatively) familiar names on its provisional roster, including Athletics outfielder Chris Denorfia and former Tigers infielder Robert Fick. Several pitchers, too, have major-league pedigrees: Lenny DiNardo of the Royals, Jason Grilli of the Rockies, Mark DiFelice of the Brewers and old lefty Dan Serafini. Italian-American minor-leaguers include three from the Orioles organization: infielder Mike Costanzo, outfielder Jeff Fiorentino and right-hander Clifford Flagello.
• They got any paisanos over there who know how to play, or are they just going to use ours? Oh, ohhh! Easy there. Yeah, Italy can play ball, though the sport didn't take off after World War II. Of the 45 players on the provisional roster that manager Marco Mazzieri will be looking over, 14 play in the Italian league, Serie A1. Alessandro Maestri (what a sweet-sounding name) is a Cubs prospect on the squad who was actually born and raised in Italy. Not Little Italy, or the somewhere, over by there, but from bona fide Viserba, Italy. He's the first Italian-born player to sign with a major league organization. Looking at his numbers (great K/BB ratio, low hits) we just might see Maestri in the majors someday.
• So, the manager, Marco Mazzieri, also is homegrown? Yep, he used to play center field for Team Italy in the '80s and '90s and now he's running the show. Mazzieri guided the Italians to a 3-4 record in the 2007 Baseball World Cup and one of the wins came against the United States. There's still a heavy American influence on the coaching staff; it includes Piazza, Mike Hargrove and Tom Trebelhorn. John Franco apparently will not return as pitching coach.
• What are we looking at, here, in this tournament? It is what it is. But, as Joaquin Andujar used to say, baseball can be summed up "in one word": You never know. Italy faces Venezuela, then would see either the U.S. (Chris Iannetta!) or Canada (and Joey Votto!) in what could be the elimination round. Hey, what's the worst that could happen? Go to Toronto, play some ball, do some shopping, ride to the top of the CN Tower, maybe check out Queen Street, nobody gets hurt.