Sunday, February 25, 2024

Italy staves off Cuba in thrilling extras win

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TAICHUNG, Taiwan — Cuba and Italy had never faced off in World Baseball Classic play before their matchup in Pool A at Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium.

But after Thursday night, fans may want them to face off in every WBC.

The matchup had everything: big hits, huge strikeouts, fielding blunders, back-and-forth scoring, the Horn Guy and dugout-clearing celebrations after singles.

But finally, after 10 innings, Mike Piazza’s Team Italy squad pulled out a huge 6-3 win against Cuba.

“I was really impressed with our team,” Piazza said. “We did not get discouraged. We just kept battling and … it was a big win. It’s a big win. It’s a big win for our federation.”

The first five innings of the game flew by — played in a crisp 1 1/2 hours. Cuba starter Roenis Elías, a Mariners reliever, pitched five scoreless innings of two-hit ball. Italy starter Matt Harvey and reliever Andre Pallante matched Elías with five scoreless frames of their own. The duo gave up just three hits, with Harvey getting out of a big third-inning jam to leave Cuba stranded at second and third.

“I think our pitchers did a good job tonight,” Piazza said. “They threw the ball well, and tomorrow, we are always talking, we are always collaborating to see how we can make our team better. But I was very impressed with the way [Harvey] threw tonight, and as I said, he got out of that jam, and so I decided, we decided collectively that we wanted to just give him a good ending.”

Finally, in the sixth inning, things started to percolate.

Italy scored the first run of the game on a Brett Sullivan sacrifice fly in the top of the frame and another on a Yoenis Céspedes-assisted double in the seventh. Cuba bounced back for a run in the seventh and then another huge two-out Erisbel Arruebarrena RBI single in the eighth. Arruebarrena’s teammates couldn’t contain themselves.

Both teams went down 1-2-3 in the ninth, and then for the first time in WBC history, it was extra-runner time at second base.

Sal Frelick was the man on second for Italy and he, almost right away, caught Cuba off guard and stole third.

“Use your instincts and be smart,” Piazza said of Frelick stealing third. “But we needed something there to change the momentum, because I think when we were swinging the bats, we were just getting a little bit pressing in those situations — when we didn’t score the runs with runners on second and third and less than two outs. It was great that he took that himself. But I trust these guys. I mean, I want them to think, and I want them to be smart.”

John Valente knocked Frelick in with a single up the middle and then, well, Italy poured it on. Dominic Fletcher added an insurance run with an RBI double into the right-center-field gap, and after Cuba intentionally walked David Fletcher to get to Nicky Lopez, the Royals speedster made manager Armando Johnson pay with a game-breaking, two-run single up the middle.

“I thought it was probably going to be an offspeed pitch and I was just trying to see it as deep as possible, but I know I could react to the fastball if he threw it,” Lopez said. “I was fortunate to see a slider up and put a good swing on it.”

Cuba added one in the bottom of the inning, but that was it. Italy secured a big victory in its first game of the week.

“This was an unbelievable win for us here, and obviously, it was incredible for me to get the ball the first game and I couldn’t be more proud to put up zeros for the team,” said Harvey.

Italy’s next game is against Chinese Taipei here on Friday (6 a.m. ET, Tubi), while Cuba takes on Panama on Friday (11:30 p.m. ET Thu., FS1). The Netherlands is also in Pool A. Each team faces the other four in round-robin play, with the pool’s winner and runner-up advancing to the quarterfinals in Tokyo against the top teams from Pool B.

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