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Team Italy shocks Canada at WBC; eliminates Canucks

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The Canadian Press
3/10/2009 1:03:32 AM
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TORONTO - The best collection of Canadian hitters ever assembled was shut down by a journeyman who last pitched in the majors two years ago, a never-was playing semi-pro ball in Italy, and a mediocre middle reliever for the Colorado Rockies.

So much for bashing their way to the second round in Miami.

Instead, the Canadians are done at the World Baseball Classic after a stunning 6-2 loss Monday night to an unheralded Italy club made up mostly of part-time players with a handful of big-leaguers sprinkled in.

It was, in a word, devastating.

"There's a lot of frustration," said first baseman Justin Morneau. "We came in expecting to take a step forward, and I feel like we took a little step back.

"We felt like we had a team good enough to go to Miami for the second round, and instead, we lose two straight at home, in our own backyard."

Added Joey Votto: "It's the most emotional and most disappointing loss I've ever been a part of. I think it's going to take some time to recover from it. I've never experienced something like this before."

Things had been playing out just how the Canadians had expected them to at the tournament, and all they had to do was beat Italy to set up a win-and-advance game against Venezuela.

Scott Richmond, their best starter, was being saved for Tuesday evening's contest because, while they weren't looking past the Italians, they figured they had enough offence to get by the Europeans.

But starter Vince Perkins booted Nick Punto's comebacker on his second pitch of the game, never found a groove, and little went right for the home side from then on before a disgruntled crowd of 12,411. The Italians scratched out a run in each of the first four innings and then put up two more in the seventh to restore a four-run advantage after Jason Bay's RBI double in the fourth had pulled Canada close.

Potential rallies never developed and the confidence of the Italians grew as each out brought them closer to the upset. The final score underscored the Classic's unpredictability, which is part of what makes it so exciting to watch.

"They just played a better game," said catcher Russ Martin. "If you play a seven-game series, things might change but it's one game, that's what happens. You've got to win the game and we didn't."

The loss also marked the end of an era for Canadian baseball, as Stubby Clapp came on as a pinch-hitter in the eighth and flew out to centre in what was likely his final at-bat for the national team.

The Italians, 7-0 losers to Venezuela on Saturday, get another shot at the South Americans on Tuesday with a spot in the second round on the line. The winner plays the United States on Wednesday to determine seedings in Miami.

"One of the biggest moments in baseball for Italy," said third baseman Alex Liddi.

Former big-league journeyman Dan Serafini, who last pitched in the majors with Colorado in 2007, went three innings for the win. Lefty Chris Cooper, who pitches for Montepaschi Grosseto in Italy, went 2 2-3 innings while Rockies reliever Jason Grilli came on in the sixth and provided 3 1-3 scoreless innings of relief for the save.

Oakland Athletics outfielder Chris Denorfia had four hits, knocked in two runs and scored two more while Liddi, a Seattle Mariners prospect signed out of an European academy, also drove in a pair and made a tremendous defensive play against Martin to open the seventh.

The Canadians now head back to spring training with their respective teams and do their best to try and figure out where exactly things went wrong.

One obvious place to look is on the mound, where, because of injuries or opt-outs, the Canadian team had to do without standout hurlers Rich Harden, Jeff Francis, Ryan Dempster and Erik Bedard.

"To really go deep in this tournament you need pitching," said Votto. "The U.S. team and some of the Asian teams are really set up well because of that. There are four outstanding pitchers out there that are Canadian that it would have been so nice to have with us.

"They couldn't commit and that's what we had to deal with."

One decision likely to be second-guessed was saving Richmond for a game that wasn't guaranteed to happen, essentially playing for tomorrow without first taking care of today.

"I'll take the heat for that," said manager Ernie Whitt. "I felt very comfortable that the pitchers that we had lined up, that they could hold Italy in check and we could score a lot of runs."

There will also be questions on whether Canada learned its lesson from the first Classic, when a four-spot in the ninth was needed to rally past South Africa 11-8 and avert disaster.

Whitt admitted the thought had kept him from sleeping at night.

"It has been mentioned, let's put it that way," he said before the game. "I think we just took (South Africa) too lightly, you know. You look at it on paper, and it's like there's no way they should contend, or even be in the same ballpark as us.

"But that's why you play the game."

Exactly, and the Canadians didn't play it well.

Perkins struggled through a 28-pitch first inning, opening the door to an unearned run by fumbling Punto's comebacker. A fielder's choice and two walks later, Denorfia beat out an infield single as Davide Dallospedale crossed.

Perkins' control problems continued into the second, when a pair of walks set up an RBI single by Dallospedale that extended the Italian lead to 2-0.

Denorfia's leadoff double in the third ended Perkins' night but the runner came around to score on Liddi's sacrifice fly off T.J. Burton two batters later.

"It was tough," said Perkins. "Obviously some nerves played into it. That's not the way I've been throwing lately, and I was fighting myself a little bit to throw strikes, kind of pulling off the ball. But I should have been able to do a little better than that."

Scott Diamond came on in the fourth and gave up a run on a Frank Catalanotto single and a Denorfia RBI double.

Bay's two-run double in the bottom of the fourth gave Canada some life but Cooper struck out Mark Teahen and Peter Orr to keep his team ahead.

Canada kept pushing but couldn't get the big hit.

The baseball gods seemed set to intervene in the fifth, when Bay's infield popper struck one of the trusses hanging from the roof used for concerts and other non-sport events, leaving runners at first and third. But Matt Stairs failed to capitalize, popping out to third to end the inning.

Instead it was the Italians who were opportunistic in the seventh, getting one run on Liddi's RBI single off Steve Green and another when shortstop Chris Barnwell went to second on a Punto grounder only for Orr to reach the bag late and extend the inning.

Notes: Richmond will now return to camp with the Toronto Blue Jays, where he's competing for a spot in the starting rotation. ... Don Cherry threw out the ceremonial first pitch. During batting practice, several Canadian players spoke with Cherry and got autographs from him. ... One fan clearly disgruntled by J.P. Ricciardi's reign as Blue Jays general manager shouted: "Hey Italy, take Ricciardi home with you." ... Dempster, who declined to play for Canada, was booed when he was shown in a video highlight pack. ... Denorfia tied WBC records with four hits and three doubles. ... Serafini was suspended 50 games by Major League Baseball after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance in 2007.

Justin Morneau (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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