Italy's unlikely run at the World Baseball Classic is over. As against the Dominican Republic, Italy jumped out to an early lead on the Puerto Rico. And, as against the Dominican Republic, they gave it all back late. And though baseball is a team game, it's hard not to pin the blame on two shortstops, career minor leaguers both, who between them misplayed five ground balls in two innings to account for the Puerto Ricans' first and last runs of a 4-3 victory.
It is a team game, in that a team is only as strong as its weakest link, and the ball tends to find that soft spot. Italy, benefiting from the WBC's generous eligibility rules, fielded more than a few major leaguers. At first, the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo, at second, the Dodgers' Nick Punto, and at third, Seattle's Alex Liddi (who is actually Italian-born). But there were no MLB players to play short, and that's where the game was lost.
Anthony Granato spent six seasons in the minors, in both the Cubs' and Rockies' systems as well as independent leagues, and never made it past high-A. He last appeared in the Italian baseball league, but hadn't played professionally for a year when he was tapped as Team Italy's starting shortstop. His backup, Jack Santora, is a 36-year-old career minor leaguer who since 2007 has been playing in Italy. Each would get their chance last night, and each would lose it in the dirt.
A bases-clearing double from Anthony Rizzo in the fifth put Italy on top 3-0. An inning later, they would give one back. Granato mishandled a Yadier Molina grounder. On the next play, he booted another, hurrying to force Molina at second. Two batters later, poor Granato was again eaten up for his second error of the inning, allowing Molina to score.
Italy manager Marco Mazzieri promptly benched Granato.
Mazzieri said it was one of his toughest decisions he ever had to make, pulling Granato from the game.
"It was a very, very tough decision," Mazzieri said. "Anthony has done so many things for us and is the main reason why we won so many games. If it would have been a regular championship season, I'm not making that decision. But I felt like it could have got into his head a little bit too much. I wouldn't have felt comfortable leaving him out there and I couldn't let the team down in that way."
Granato wasn't happy about being pulled.
"Personally, I was upset about it. I didn't think it was right," he said. "In my mind, I looked at it [in perspective] of everything else I did for the team. Everybody makes mistakes and that's fine. But at the end of the day, he is the manager. I respect the decision and I have to live with it."
Granato's replacement didn't fair much better. In Puerto Rico's three-run eighth, Jack Santora misplayed a couple balls of his own. With two outs and the game tied, Santora bounced a throw to first, allowing Alex Rios to score the go-ahead run from second. Italy went down quietly in the ninth, and Puerto Rico survives to play another day.
It was nothing short of a Cinderella run for Italy, who somehow made it out of a first-round pool ahead of Mexico and Canada. The Italian press eagerly covered their progress, and hitting coach Mike Piazza says the result isn't important, but rather what this showing will do for the game's growth in Italy.
"No matter what happens, this tournament is something to build on," Piazza said. "We play hard. We have had success. Everyone respects us. Events like this will encourage more people in Italy to play baseball. You have to look at the big picture."
The United States and the Dominican Republic face off tonight, with the winner moving on to join Japan and the Netherlands. The loser will play Puerto Rico for the last spot in the final four.