MIAMI – So this is the Azzurri, the hearty and resourceful men of team Italy. Its roster boasts a few proud citizens, many who claim its heritage, and a couple who've been to Olive Garden.
This is the team that, after beating Mexico and Canada one round back, can now add "made the Dominican Republic sweat" to a rather light but developing baseball diary.
That alone did not save the Italians from the losers' bracket of the World Baseball Classic on Tuesday afternoon. They were beaten, 5-4, at Marlins Park. But, they did come seven outs from the greatest upset the nascent tournament has seen, an upset so real for so long that the Dominicans were compelled to celebrate their comeback with not a shred of modesty.
Indeed, the Dominicans are beautifully adept at the celebration – pregame, in-game, postgame. Just, this time, Italy and its band of fratelli made them earn every strut and glare, and that would have to do.
The same morning, hours before they'd play, one of the Italians grinned broadly and said, "Hey, we're like the fat kid at the prom; we're just happy to be here."
By the seventh inning, they were desperately holding to the last of a 4-0 lead, by then almost adding on to the lead, almost pitching well and almost making plays. They couldn't. Not quite. So they sat glumly and eyed the scoreboard as their "4" in the first inning grew roots, and then as the Dominicans inched closer on a Jose Reyes home run, then a Robinson Cano home run, and then finally with a break-out, three-run seventh inning.
"We were playing good," said Nick Punto, the Los Angeles Dodger who led off and played second for the Azzurri. "It just wasn't enough runs."
By the time the Dominicans had had enough of living with a deficit – they're now 4-0 in the tournament – an interesting clash of personalities had developed. The Dominicans would homer and twice a Harlem Shake would detonate in front of their dugout. The Italians would ground into an inning-ending force play at second, and three times slide hard, and three times earn a stern glare from Cano, the Dominican second baseman.
The Dominicans appeared to believe the Italians were playing a touch too hard for a March game they were supposed to lose anyway. The Italians watched the Dominicans go all La Vega Carnival for a March game they were supposed to win anyway and, well, looked away.
"There's been some enhanced theater in this series," Team Italy coach Mike Piazza said, "not what you're used to. … But, hey, have fun."
Punto called it "Tournament baseball," and shrugged.
"It is very different," he said.
The Dominicans were in character. It is who they were in round one, and will continue to be. The exuberance reveals the soulful place where baseball lives in them.
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"It's a different style, the way we play here than we play in New York," Cano admitted. "Here you get to be – you see how we get outside the dugout. That's something you never see in the big leagues. … Nobody sees you trying to show somebody up."
So, the Dominican Republic moved on, Italy must work its way back, and that's about where everyone left it Tuesday. No hard feelings. A very interesting near miss. A great ballgame. And a possibly substantial step forward for the men of the Azzurri.
"I think we got everybody's respect as a program," Piazza said. "As a national program."
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