Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri faces some of the best international baseball minds this week during the inaugural 2015 Premier 12 in Taiwan. On November 10th the Italian skipper and LA Dodgers international scout will lock horns with Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodríguez. The former Yankee and Padre infielder became the first Puerto Rican-born manager in major league history when he managed the Florida Marlins (2010-2011). The last time the two teams met in the 2013 World Baseball Classic Italia nearly upset WBC runner-up Puerto Rico.
On November 11th the eleventh-ranked Italian squad takes on fourth-ranked Chinese Taipei, a tough customer managed by Japan’s NPB all-time leading pitcher Tai-Yuan Kuo, who amassed 117 wins during his 13 seasons with the Seibu Lions and most recently served as pitching coach for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks (2013-2014). After Team Italia gets a one day reprieve, they tackle fifth-ranked Kingdom of the Netherlands on November 13th. Holland defeated Italy in the 2014 European Baseball Championship under current Premier 12 bench coach Steve Jannsen. Curacao native Hensley Meulens, who made his MLB debut for the Yankees in 1986 and has spent the last six seasons as the San Francisco Giants hitting coach, reclaims the Kingdom of the Netherlands manager role after leading the Dutch to the semifinals in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Having been defeated by Team Italia in both the 2009 and 2013 WBC, Canada is out to make amends in the Premier 12. Manager Ernie Whitt, a fifteen-year veteran MLB catcher and former Blue Jay bench coach, and current Blue Jay first base coach Tim Leiper will lead Canada’s charge. When it was announced that five-time MLB all-star Larry Walker would be joining the seventh-ranked Team Canada coaching staff, an ominous feeling filled the air with supernatural powers. Walker’s superstition with the number three may be just what the doctor ordered for the Italians to upset Canada for the third consecutive time on November 14th. To understand this ironic twist, one must remember that as a player Larry Walker wore number 33 and would take three, or any multiple of three, swings in the batter’s box before every at-bat. In fact, it is reported that he was married on the third of November at 3:33 PM. It remains to be seen if Walker’s obsession with the #3 plays to Team Italia’s advantage in their quest for three straight wins over Canada.
Italia’s final game in the first round of Premier 12 action is a November 15th battle against third-ranked Cuba, managed by Victor Mesa, one of the greatest baserunners in Cuban baseball history and Olympic gold medalist. Mesa’s Cuban national team beat World Port Tournament host and runner-up the Netherlands in July to place first with teams from Curacao, Japan and Chinese Taipei rounding out the field. Most recently in Premier 12 exhibition games, Cuba split their two games against eighth-ranked South Korea, while Team Italia beat tenth-ranked Venezuela and lost a heartbreaker to twelfth-ranked Mexico.
The top 12 nations in the world of baseball will square off in the inaugural 2015 Premier 12 in Japan and Taiwan. In the first round of play, eleventh-ranked Italia faces ninth-ranked Puerto Rico on November 10th, fourth-ranked Chinese Taipei on November 11th, fifth-ranked Kingdom of the Netherlands on November 12th, seventh-ranked Canada on November 14th and third-ranked Cuba on November 15th. A welcome addition to the Team Italia pitching staff is MLB prospect Trey Nielsen from the St. Louis Cardinals organization. The crafty right-hander was originally selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 42nd round of the 2010 Draft out of Salt Lake City’s Skyline High School. Highly-touted as a 2010 Preseason Rawlings honorable mention All-American and two-time first-team all-state player, Nielsen chose not to sign with the Cubbies in favor of becoming a student athlete at the University of Utah. Playing his first two seasons exclusively as an infielder, he returned to the mound during his junior year and made four pitching appearances. Under the guidance of former MLB player and father Scott Nielsen, Trey opted out of his senior collegiate season in favor of a professional baseball career when taken in the 30th round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. Postponing his minor league pitching debut due to Tommy John surgery, Nielsen pitched well for the 2014 NY-Penn League Champs State College Spikes by posting a 3-2 record with 49 strikeouts, 14 walks and a 2.50 ERA in 50 1/3 innings of work while holding opponents to just a .201 average.
Trey Nielsen was among the elite invitees to the 2015 Cardinals Spring Training Early Program Camp. In each of his seven starts for Single-A Advanced Palm Beach Cardinals between May 19 and June 26, he limited his opponents to no more than one earned run. After recording six shutouts this summer, the fast-rising Nielsen moved up to number 19 in the Cardinal Nation’s Top 40 prospect ranking. With the spotlight on him now in the Premier 12, Trey is ready to give underdog Team Italia a big boost with quality starts on the international stage.
One should never underestimate the power of prayer. Saint Anthony has miraculously helped believers find lost things and people when all else has failed. So when the Texas Rangers selected 6-foot-7 right-hander Anthony Ranaudo out of New Jersey’s Saint Rose High School in the 11th round of the 2007 draft and failed to sign the promising Italian American pitcher, they looked to Saint Anthony to bring him to Arlington. After eight years of intensive prayer, the Rangers acquired Ranaudo in January from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for lefty pitcher Robbie Ross. The miracle worker Saint Anthony was once again called upon over two years ago when prayers went out for divine intervention for Team Italy prior to the start of the 2013 World Baseball Classic. When hitting coach Mike Piazza had successfully recruited Cubs’ slugger Anthony Rizzo to join la squadra azzurri, it was time to pray to the great Saint Anthony to find the “missing” Anthonys to complete the Italian roster.
A simple tweet exchange two years ago could very well be a blessing to Team Italy from Saint Anthony should Major League Baseball allow franchise players to participate in the 2015 Premier 12 Tournament in Japan and Taiwan. With Ranaudo’s positive response echoing his desire to pitch for underdog Italy, Italian MLB Academy director and Team Italy pitching coach Bill Holmberg can possibly bolster his pitching arsenal alongside Braves’ All-Star reliever Jason Grilli, Blue Jays prospect Tiago Da Silva, Diamondbacks prospect Tim Crabbe and former Cubs’ minor leaguer Alessandro Maestri. Coach Holmberg deserves credit for Team Italy’s upset victories over Mexico and Canada in the 2013 WBC. By keeping some of MLB’s finest hitters guessing what was coming their way next when calling for a slew of off-speed pitches from the dugout, many big names including Adam Jones (.167), Carlos Beltran (.143), Alex Rios (.125), Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Votto (.000) never felt comfortable at the plate.
Patience has always been a virtue for Ranaudo. Instead of signing with the Rangers out of high school in 2007, he played baseball at Louisiana State University, where he was third in NCAA strikeouts and led the LSU Tigers to become 2009 National Champs. Four years after being chosen by Boston as a supplemental first-round pick in the 2010 draft, he made his MLB debut with the Red Sox last year and won four games with a 4.81 ERA in seven starts. Ranaudo started the 2014 season at Triple-A Pawtucket, where he compiled a 14-4 record and was voted the International League’s Most Valuable Pitcher. Anthony is currently competing at Rangers Spring Training Camp in Arizona for an Opening Day roster spot as their number five starter.
But excited about my new team, fans, and opportunity. Let's get it!! @Rangers