Italians' success a surprise even to Rizzo

Italians' success a surprise even to Rizzo

PHOENIX -- Anthony Rizzo thought he'd be back in the Cubs lineup on Sunday, prepping to face the Padres in a Cactus League game. Team Italy entered the World Baseball Classic as a underdog, especially in a pool that included Team USA, Mexico and Canada.

Evidently, no one told the Italians.

Instead, Rizzo stopped by HoHoKam Stadium in Mesa on Sunday to pick up some more bats, take a few swings in the cage with hitting coach James Rowson, and then say, "arrivederchi." Italy and Rizzo are moving on to the next round in the World Baseball Classic, which will be held in Miami, near his hometown.

"I imagined being in Cubs camp tomorrow," Rizzo said prior to Saturday's game against Team USA at Chase Field. "[Italy's manager Marco Mazzieri] has been so inspirational, telling us that no matter what, we're going to win."

Even with a 6-2 loss to the Americans on Saturday night, Italy has advanced, beating Mexico, 6-5, then romping 14-4 over Canada. The Canadians' win over Mexico on Saturday afternoon assured Italy that it will move on.

The game may be the same, but there is an intensity in the World Baseball Classic that Rizzo said he hasn't experienced before.

"This is different," he said. "My dad spoke to one of our cousins -- we have a lot of family in Italy -- and he said they're going crazy over there. I can only imagine what it's like just to see the excitement with the guys here. In the hotel, we were watching the Mexico-Canada game [Saturday], and every out, they're clapping because we needed Canada to win so we could clinch.

"This is an experience that a lot of guys who have never been here will never experience again -- it's something I may never experience again. I don't know what the postseason is like, but every out means something. It's fun."

The players dress together at their hotel, then bus with a police escort to the stadium. Rizzo said it reminded him of his youth league days.

"It's like we're all little kids," he said, smiling.

In the win over Mexico, Rizzo delivered a two-run, go-ahead double in the ninth. He picked up an RBI in the win over Canada on a groundout.

"When I was in Cubs camp, my focus was being there," Rizzo said. "Now my focus is being here. I grounded out the other day [against Canada] and I was happy because I scored a run. It's just things like that where it's tournament play and so much different than the regular season."

He hasn't forgotten his Cubs teammates.

"I check every day, and talk to Dale [Sveum] every day," he said of the Cubs manager. "They're fully supportive. I'm going to be playing more here than I would be in Spring Training. It's just nice to be competing."

It's been even nicer to be playing at Chase Field with larger crowds -- the games were moved because of inclement weather. Now, he's headed home for a few days. Team Italy flies to Miami Sunday night, practices Monday, then starts the next round Tuesday.

"That'll be cool," Rizzo said about going home. "To be honest, I got over here, played the first couple [exhibition] games, and thought, 'We have good hitters, decent lineup, guys who do their job,' and Mexico was the game of my life that I've ever played. It was so much fun and energetic. It was crazy."

There will be a large contingent of family and friends cheering him on.

"I'm sure it'll be fun," Rizzo said. "A couple of my friends said they'll dress up as the Mario Brothers."

Rizzo hit his double off Giants closer and World Series champion Sergio Romo, while Italy's closer, Jason Grilli, made it interesting as Mexico loaded the bases in the ninth. Grilli induced an game-ending double play.

"The second baseman [Alessandro Vaglio] doesn't speak much English, and he said, 'Hey, I think I have heart attack,'" Rizzo said.

Rizzo's father, John, has been hearing from his brother's brother-in-law, who lives in Sicily. The family is from Ciminna, which about 30 miles southeast of the capital of Palermo.

"They have a small core of baseball fans," John Rizzo said. "It's like a cult thing."

And they're going crazy with every Italy win. Team Italy was the most popular at Chase Field in terms of merchandise sales. Every shop at the ballpark was sold out of T-shirts and jerseys before Saturday's game even started.

One of the best parts for Rizzo?

"The hat exchange every day," he said of the exchange between players of each team. So far, he's collected Joey Votto's Canadian cap and Ryan Braun's from Team USA.

Rizzo now knows his great grandfather, Vito, came over from Italy in 1905 on the Prince Albert and went through Ellis Island. He can say "buon giorno" and is trying to pick up some Italian. He's come a long way from his summers in New Jersey as a kid. His father said the only Italian Anthony knew then was the Italian ice and cannoli sold at the Lyndhurst Pastry Shop.

Italians aren't the only ones to benefit from the unexpected win. More than a few Cubs players pledged $500 each if Italy won at least one game. Sveum joked with his first baseman that it was only $50 but the team has the morning meeting and friendly wager on video. The money will go to the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation.

"I made sure to text everyone with dollar signs to get their checkbooks ready," Rizzo said.

Now, all he needs are a few more bats and he's headed to Miami.

"We'll see what happens -- who knows?" Rizzo said of Italy's chances. "Everyone counted us out and we've been coming up with hit after hit."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.