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Italy's stunner a joy to watch

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The ninth inning of Thursday afternoon's game between Italy and Mexico is why managers hate the World Baseball Classic and why fans should love it.

Mexico entered the ninth leading 5-4 at Salt River Fields. If this had been a regular Cactus League game, the veteran starters would be on the golf course and most of the fans would be in line for happy hour at Don and Charlie's. Instead, the starters still were in the game and the remaining 4,478 fans were either on the edge of their seats or holding up banners in the stands and chanting the name of their countries.

And before it was all over, the reliever who closed out the Giants' world championship last October had thrown 26 pitches and blown the lead, an All-Star with a $154 million contract was hit by a pitch and a 6-foot-5 journeyman reliever was shouting angrily at the umpire.

Oh, and Italy had rallied for a 6-5 victory.

And we're supposed to prefer watching a Cactus League split-squad game featuring players wearing numbers usually associated with offensive linemen? Please. This is why the WBC is so much fun. Although managers and general managers may feel differently.

Sergio Romo, as you'll recall, retired the Detroit Tigers in the ninth inning last October to seal the San Francisco Giants' second world championship in three years. Thursday, he took the mound in dazzling knee-high green socks for Team Mexico (his parents are from Mexico). He didn't pitch poorly, but Mexico's Edgar Gonzalez, the older brother of Adrian Gonzalez, butchered two fly balls to left field, and Romo wound up allowing two runs. Edgar Gonzalez is normally an infielder, and it looked like it.

The two runs scored when Gonzalez misplayed Anthony Rizzo's fly ball to the warning track. It would have scored Stefano Disimoni from third base had he caught it, but allowing it to drop gave Italy the lead. And it also meant Romo needed 26 pitches to get out of the inning. Romo is an emotional guy and he apparently was so upset about the loss that he wasn't made available to the media after the game.

San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy must have loved hearing about that. Especially if Mexico manager Rick Renteria uses Romo again Friday in what is now pretty much a must-win against the United States.

"We started to worry a little bit when we got up to 25 pitches and in the WBC you have a 30-pitch limit that requires you to have a day off,'' Renteria said when asked whether Romo would be available Friday. "We were fortunate to get him through that one inning, and yeah, as Bochy says, 'All hands on deck.'

"As much as it might seem like a stressful outing for him, he goes after it. He's not a guy I worry about from a physical aspect.''

After that, Italy had to protect its lead with Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Jason Grilli on the mound. With two out and a runner on second, he threw a 3-2 pitch to Luis Cruz. Grilli was so certain it was a game-ending strike three that he demonstrably pumped his fists (remember, the Pirates don't experience many emotional victories). When home plate umpire Jim Reynolds instead called it ball four, Grilli reacted so angrily that catcher Drew Butera had to position himself between the two.

"I told [Reynolds], 'I've got him, I'll take care of him,'" said Butera, who acknowledged the pitch was inside. "I was just as pumped up as he was and everyone in the stadium was, too. It was a situation where everybody is intense, we all wanted it to be a strike, but it was the right call. It was a ball.''

The walk brought up the Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez, who sent two powerful drives foul down the right-field line before Grilli hit him on the left knee with a pitch. Gonzalez winced (as did probably the Dodgers ownership) but was quickly checked out by a trainer and stayed in the game. We'll see how the knee feels Friday, but Gonzalez should probably feel worse about his brother's defense in left.

With the bases loaded, Grilli finally got Jorge Cantu to ground out to second baseman Alessandro Vaglio to end the game and set off an emotional celebration for Italy.

"I think we deserve a little more respect than what we've been getting so far, honestly,'' Italy manager Marco Mazzieri said.

Vaglio was one of the four native Italians on the field at the end of the game for a team largely made up of Americans of Italian descent. Third baseman Alex Liddo, the first Italian in major league history, was one of the others. He was 2-for-3 with a walk and an RBI.

"This kind of tournament is so special because it's not about one player, it's not about one team, it's not about a city,'' Liddi said. "It's about an entire country.''

Which definitely beats being about a pitcher getting in his work in a B-squad game on a minor league field.