Azzurri catcher Francisco Cervelli (Pittsburgh Pirates) has already belted two home runs and six doubles so far since April 3, 2017. With a career high of seven homers and 17 doubles during his first year with the Bucs in 2015, Cervelli is on pace to set career best stats in home runs and extra-base hits in 2017. Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli takes pride in his Italian heritage. Born in Valencia, Venezuela to an Italian father and Venezuelan mother, Cervelli left home at 15 to pursue a life in baseball. He signed with the New York Yankees as an international free agent in 2003. Prior to playing for Team Italy in the 2009 WBC, Cervelli was not yet an established Major Leaguer as he had only played in three games for the 2008 Yankees. Despite the odds, he managed to guide Team Italy’s pitching staff to an impressive 6-2 victory over host Canada, thereby eliminating the Canadians at Toronto’s Rogers Centre. Cervelli spent an additional six years in New York in a limited backup capacity before being traded on November 12, 2014 to Pittsburgh, where he is adored as the Bucs’ full-time catcher. The Pirates recognized Cervelli before their game against the Atlanta Braves on April 8, 2017, when the first 20,000 fans in attendance at PNC Park received Francisco Cervelli “That’s Amore” Singing Bobbleheads. The bobblehead featured Cervelli in his patented Love Doctor robe with rose petals at his feet singing “That’s Amore”. Catching all four games for Team Italy in the 2017 WBC, Francisco proved to be an offensive weapon as well with two of his four hits being for extra-bases.
Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri will have his mixed roster of seasoned MLB players and up-and-coming prospects ready for combat in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Guadalajara will be declared a war zone beginning March 9th when 2017 WBC host Mexico seeks revenge against a ‘never say die’ Italian squad that attacked closer Sergio Romo to pull off a miraculous 6-5 come-from-behind victory in the opening game of the 2013 WBC in Scottsdale, Arizona. Team Mexico will be managed by Edgar Gonzalez, who will be depending on his brother Adrian Gonzalez to lead the Mexican’s offensive charge with the support of sluggers Khris Davis and Danny Espinosa. In the opening battle on March 9th, Team Italia will most likely face starting pitchers Jamie Garcia, Miguel Gonzalez or Oliver Perez. It will be critical for Team Italia to strike first and score runs early because the Mexican bullpen is filled with some of the MLB’s finest relievers including: Roberto Osuna, Sergio Romo, Joakim Soria, Fernando Salas and Carlos Torres.
Team Italia will use a day off to strategize and prepare their troops for the March 11th clash versus Venezuela. Not only will this be one of the Team Italia’s biggest challenges of the 2017 WBC, but it is life-or-death for Venezuelan-born catcher Francisco Cervelli–who played for Team Italia when Venezuela eliminated the Italians from the 2009 WBC competition following their devastating 10-1 defeat. Fellow Venezuela native Luis Lugo, a 22-year-old Cleveland Indians pitching prospect who secured a Team Italia roster spot in the 2016 European Championship, would absolutely love the opportunity to get the ball and turn the tables on Venezuela. However, it will not be an easy task for Team Italia as Venezuela manager Omar Vizquel’s roster of MLB All-Stars includes Felix Hernandez, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Carlos Gonzalez, Jose Altuves, Asdrubal Cabrera, Rougned Odor, Martin Prado, Alcides Escobar, Salvador Perez, Ender Inciarte, Odubel Herrera and Sandy Leon.
Team Italia will face Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez’s talented roster on March 12th. Starting pitcher possibilities include Seth Lugo and Hector Santiago. Relievers include Alex Claudio, Edwin Diaz, Joe Jimenez and Joe Colon. Puerto Rico boosts a strong MLB All-Star caliber lineup with the likes of Javier Baez, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Yadier Molina, T.J. Rivera and Eddie Rosario. Puerto Rico, the runner-up of the 2013 WBC, eliminated Team Italia in the second round of play when they rallied late in the eight inning from a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the Azzurri with a 4-3 victory. As with the 2013 WBC, the first round will again be a round-robin format with the top two teams advancing to one of two second-round pools. However, for the first time in the worldwide tournament’s history, a single-elimination tiebreaker game will be played if necessary to determine the second advancing team in both the first and second rounds. In the case of the first round in Guadalajara, the tiebreaker contest would be played on March 13th. The two top teams will then move on to the second round of action slated to begin on March 14th at San Diego’s Petco Park.
Team Italia and host Mexico have a favorable advantage over rivals Venezuela and Puerto Rico due to the scheduling of the round-robin tournament. Both teams have a day off following their head-to-head combat match-up on opening night March 9th. However, when Team Italia returns recharged for a day game against Venezuela on March 11th, the Italians can take advantage of a sleep-deprived and fatigued Venezuela pitching staff that will have been taxed after being used the night before versus Puerto Rico. Team Italia will once again enjoy the same luxury when they play their second consecutive day game against a tired Puerto Rico squad that will have undergone back-to-back night battles versus Venezuela and Mexico. Although Team Italia remains the underdog, manager Marco Mazzieri’s army of blue-collar baseball players will fight to the death to repeat as they did in the 2013 WBC and advance to the second round.
Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri has been synonymous with Italian baseball since his playing days in the 1980’s. During his ten-year tenure as the leader of the Team Italia coaching staff, Mazzieri has made the Italians proud with European Baseball Championship titles in 2010 and 2012. He has worked closely with FIBS in its mission of strengthening the game in Italy and Europe. Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball(FIBS) has been instrumental in developing its own homegrown pool of talent at the FIBS Baseball Academy under the watchful eye of MLB director and Team Italia pitching coach Bill Holmberg.
In preparation of the 2016 European Baseball Championship, Italian Baseball Week showcased three of Europe’s finest: Italia, Spain and the Czech Republic. Despite losing two of the four exhibition games held in Tirrenia and Firenze, the Italians played solid fundamental baseball and used the competition to narrow down their final roster prior to the start of the Euro championship in the Netherlands. Two additional pitchers, Tiago Da Silva and Luis Lugo, caught up with Team Italia in Hoofddorp to bolster the Italian pitching arsenal and to increase the Azzurri’s chances of reclaiming the European throne from the defending Dutch champions.
During Team Italia’s first three wins against Greece, France and Belgium in the 2016 European Baseball Championship, the Azzurri offense scored a total of 42 runs. Italia then lost a heartbreaker versus second-place finisher Spain when with the score tied 3-3 in the ninth inning the Spanish rallied to win 9-3. The Italians rebounded with gusto by crushing Croatia 22-4 and shutting out Germany 12-0. Team Italia infielder Alessandro Vaglio led all hitters in the 2016 European Baseball Championship with 17 runs scored, while catcher Mattia Reginato hit for the cycle against Greece and also led the Euros in RBI (12). In fact, Team Italia led the tourney in runs (87), hits (99) and batting average (.355).
Crafty left-hander Luca Panerati, a graduate of the Italian Baseball Academy in Tirrenia and a former Cincinnati Reds pitching prospect, gave quality starts against France and Kingdom of the Netherlands. Closer Nicholas Pugliese was one out away from securing a Team Italia win versus the Dutch when a controversial call at the plate forced the game into extra innings. Notable pitching performances included two by southpaw veteran Junior Oberto, starter against Greece and Germany.
Despite losing 6-5 to Kingdom of the Netherlands in a late night ten inning contest, Team Italia returned less than 12 hours later to defeat the Czech Republic 3-2 in their final game of the 2016 European Baseball Championship. Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri shared his final thoughts with MLBforLife.com at the conclusion of the international competition. Mazzieri said, “We’re very happy the way the players performed throughout the tournament. We battled against each and every team. We played some very good baseball. We only committed two errors in all our games, which is incredible at this level. The guys gave it their all. We lost a heartbreaker to the Netherlands. The way we lost and the ways we battled. I think we deserved to win that game. We only slept a couple hours before our next game because nobody could sleep after that loss. I really don’t know where these guys get the energy to get back in these games and actually win the way we did. They showed a lot to me… Nobody but us expected to see Team Italia with that will, commitment, effort and great attitude throughout the whole game against the Netherlands. We scored two and we were up by two runs in the 8th (inning). The Netherlands came back and tied the score. We were able to find the strength and the energy to get back to score two runs. Sometimes in baseball a bad bounce or a bad call can cost you a game. That’s what happened to us. You are going to win and lose games, but the way you act and the way you perform on the field by what you do in terms of will and approach…it’s something that’s there! So we cannot complain about that… We are very proud and happy that we have this group of guys. I’m proud of a great group of coaches and players that made this journey incredible.”