Puerto Rico forces Italy's exit

MIAMI -- The World Baseball Classic's most improbable feel-good story disappeared Wednesday night beneath a hail of shoddy infield defense, poor fundamentals and questionable bullpen management when it mattered most. But the spectacle sure was fun while it lasted.

Team Italy was six outs away from handing Puerto Rico a crushing and embarrassing defeat and living to play another day. Instead, the Puerto Ricans survived with a 4-3 victory, and the Italians go home with warm memories and the satisfaction of knowing they went further in this tournament than anyone could have imagined.

"No one scripted us to be where we are," said Anthony Rizzo, starting first baseman for Team Italy and the Chicago Cubs. "But we had a lead in every game we played in this tournament. Everyone has written us off -- we shouldn't be here, this and that. I think we've earned the respect that we didn't get at all in this tournament."

Italy took an early 4-0 lead against the Dominican Republic in the opening game at Marlins Park on Tuesday before losing 5-4, and fell victim to the same storyline in its second outing. After Rizzo lined a bases-loaded double to the gap to give the Italians a 3-0 lead in the fifth inning, the Puerto Ricans bided their time and benefited from plenty of breaks to win it.

Carlos Beltran drew a leadoff walk in the eighth, and Puerto Rico proceeded to bunch four singles, a sacrifice fly, a fielder's choice and an error to bat around and take the lead. Italy center fielder Chris Denorfia made a pivotal mistake in judgment by missing a cutoff man, and Puerto Rico's Alex Rios hustled home from second base on an infield single moments later to win it.

Team Italy manager Marco Mazzieri, a respected figure in Italian baseball circles since the 1980s, won unanimous acclaim from his players for his leadership and inspirational pep talks. But after the disheartening finale, Mazzieri got a taste of the second-guessing that major league managers endure daily. Puerto Rico scored its three late runs against Team Italy relievers Nick Pugliese, Brian Sweeney and Pat Venditte. Meanwhile, big league veteran Jason Grilli, the Pittsburgh Pirates' closer, never made it out of the pen.

Mazzieri said after the game that he felt duty-bound to treat Grilli, Nick Punto, Denorfia and Rizzo -- the big leaguers on his roster -- with the requisite respect. As a result, he was going to avoid using Grilli in a situation that was outside his realm, regardless of the cost.

"I think we have an obligation to the player first, to their teams, and then us," Mazzieri said. "I couldn't ask Jason to go in for more than one inning, which is what he's going to do during the season. Yes, this tournament is important, but to me what's the most important is these guys. So I wouldn't want to do anything to hurt them in any way."

While the Italians can take solace in the strides they've made to promote baseball in the homeland, Puerto Rico has more immediate concerns. Manager Edwin Rodriguez and his team will get back at it Friday against the loser of Thursday's USA-Dominican game. For the next 24 hours, they can relax and enjoy the replays of their postgame celebration.

"There's a lot of emotions when you're playing for your nation, regardless if it's Puerto Rico, the USA or the Dominican," Rodriguez said. "We all know that everybody is watching back home. They're jumping, they're yelling, they're making noise, and you know that we can make noise. I think pretty much everybody had that in mind."