Once inseparable as part of the 2018 Toronto Blue Jays’ pitching rotation and again in 2019 while providing relief out the Jay’s bullpen, Sam Gaviglio and Joe Biagini have picked up where they left off three years ago together after being summoned by Team Italy manager and National Baseball Hall of Famer Mike Piazza to lead the Italians to success in the 2023 World Baseball Classic. Former Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said, “Joe and Sam are two of my all-time favorites. Both did a tremendous job for us, better than anyone expected. Both are first class individuals also and proud Italians.”
For the Biagini family, playing for Team Italy is close to the heart since relatives hail from Lucca. Rob Biagini, a former San Francisco Giants pitching prospect, helped Team Italy win the 1979 European Baseball Championship. He later led Parma to the 1980 European Champions Cup title. During a recent pre-WBC workout in Scottsdale, Arizona, Joe Biagini said, “Italy is in our soul.”
The road to MLB for Biagini was not so easy. After redshirting and playing one year at the College of San Mateo, the talented right-handed pitcher transferred to UC Davis, where he made 13 appearances out of the bullpen and went 3-1. Biagini was chosen by the San Francisco Giants in the 26th round of the 2011 MLB draft after his redshirt sophomore season. He was later selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2015 Rule 5 draft.
Biagini made his MLB debut on April 8, 2016 when he pitched a perfect ninth inning against the Boston Red Sox and posted his first career strikeout facing David Ortiz. The 2016 Toronto Blue Jays made to it to the American League Championship Series. During his six postseason appearances against Baltimore, Texas and Cleveland, Biagini threw 7.1 scoreless innings with six strikeouts. He was the only rookie to start and finish the season with the team and as a result received the 2016 Blue Jays Rookie of the Year Award.
Former Toronto first base coach Tim Leiper remembers that 2016 season like it was yesterday. He said, “Joe got better as the season progressed. He was like new found money. The Blue Jays would have never reached the postseason without him.. He is his own guy who can be light-hearted, but when it comes to pitching he is all business.”
Biagini was traded by Toronto to the Houston Astros along with Aaron Sanchez and Cal Stevenson in exchange for Derek Fisher on July 31, 2019. He spent the remainder of the 2019 season and part of the 2020 season with Houston before signing with the Chicago Cubs on December 17, 2020. Biagini was last seen pitching in MLB on October 3, 2021 when picking up the win after throwing three scoreless innings of relief against the St. Louis Cardinals.
In a twist of fate, Joe Biagini and Sam Gaviglio actually went head-to-head in a pitching matchup at Safeco Field on June 9, 2017 when the Seattle Mariners hosted the Toronto Blue Jays. M’s starter Sam Gaviglio made his MLB debut just one month prior and held the Jays to two runs on six hits with three walks and five strikeouts in six innings of work. Trailing 2-1 with little offense against Blue Jays starting pitcher Joe Biagini, Seattle finally rallied for two runs in the bottom of the seventh and eventually won 4-2. Biagini reflected on the experience and said, “Too bad we were not playing in the National League at the time so we could have actually faced each other (in the batter’s box).”
Although it may be Joe Biagini’s first time pitching for Team Italy in the 2023 World Baseball Classic, Sam Gaviglio returns to the Azzurri squad after his WBC pitching debut against Venezuela at Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Guadalajara, Mexico on March 11, 2017. He threw four scoreless innings against an explosive offense powered by MLB All-Stars Jose Altuve, Martin Prado, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Gonzalez, Victor Martinez, and Salvador Perez before surrendering two runs in top of the fifth inning. Despite an impressive start, he did not receive a decision in the Team Italy 11-10 extra-inning loss to Venezuela.
Gaviglio was first drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2008 in the 40th round but did not sign in favor of playing ball at Oregon State University instead. However, he eventually signed with the St. Louis Cardinals after being selected in the fifth round of the 2011 MLB draft. Gaviglio was traded to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for Ty Kelly on November 20, 2014. He made 12 appearances (including 11 starts) for the 2017 Seattle Mariners before being claimed off waivers by the Kansas City Royals, for whom he made another four appearances (including two starts) before the end of the 2017 season.
Gaviglio was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays on March 21, 2018. Used primarily as a starting pitcher during the 2018 season, the Ashland, Oregon native worked exclusively out of the Toronto bullpen in 2019 when he was the MLB leader in innings pitched (95.2). Former Blue Jays’ coach Tim Leiper said, “I have followed Sammy since the day I worked with him during the 2013 Arizona Fall League. His character is second to none. He is so upbeat, ultra prepared, super dependable and a solid teammate. Sammy anchored the Blue Jays pitching staff.”
He was last seen in the big leagues when making four relief appearances for the Jays in 2020. Gaviglio signed with the SSG Landers in the Korea Baseball Organization in 2021 and compiled a 6-4 record in 15 starts. While pitching in Asia, he noticed a different style of baseball being played. Gaviglio said, “The game is placed at a much faster pace. It’s more like small ball and about manufacturing runs.” With the 2023 World Baseball Classic taking place in Taichung, Taiwan for Team Italy, he hopes his recent experience playing in Asia will give the Italians an advantage. For Biagini and Gaviglio, winning Pool A against Cuba (March 9th at 6 am ET), Chinese Taipei (March 10th at 6 am ET), Panama (March 10th at 11 pm ET) and Kingdom of the Netherlands (March 12th at 7 am ET) means everything.
Former Toronto coach and current Team Canada coach Tim Leiper concluded, “The World Baseball Classic (WBC) provides the opportunity to bring them (Biagini and Gaviglio) together again. Both are versatile pitchers who have been in high-leverage positions so they can start or pitch relief, which is great for Team Italy. There are not many pitchers around who have the same skill set. They can compete and are capable of showing how good they are in the WBC to put themselves on the map again. The international competition commands respect.”