On Saturday, March 9, the U.S. men's national baseball team will play Italy in the World Baseball Classic. The world is inclined to believe Team USA will win rather handily.
Due to recent events, however, the Americans cannot afford to take the upstart Italians lightly.
Italy took the WBC by storm on Thursday, upsetting a heavily favored Mexico team by a score of 6-5. The win came after Mexico had built a 5-4 lead entering the ninth inning.
Tasked with overcoming San Francisco Giants closer Sergio Romo, the Italians struck with poise and confidence.
Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs drilled a ball to left field, finding daylight and getting it down in space. Stefano Desimoni and San Diego Padres outfielder Chris Denorfia rounded the basepath and came in to score.
Suddenly, Italy turned a 5-4 deficit into a 6-5 lead.
The rest is history.
The Italians received a scoreless ninth inning from Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Jason Grilli. Thus, the Italians secured a victory, shocked the world and gained momentum—something the Americans must be aware of.
Italy may not be a team with star power, but it is made up of a significant number of MLB players. For instance, 23-year-old Rizzo is one of the league's fastest-rising first basemen.
In 2012, Rizzo hit .285/.342/.463 with 15 home runs and 48 RBI in 87 games for the Cubs.
At the top of the order, 2011 World Series hero Nick Punto is the type of clutch player who can alter the outcome of a game. Team USA's pitchers are likely wary of what Punto brings to the table.
As for Chris Denorfia, he hit .293/.345/.451 in 130 games with the Padres last season. He's also a respected fielder and a quality baserunner.
In other words, Italy has the MLB talent to compete.
Talent is not the only reason USA must be cautious against Italy. More importantly, the Italians can stake a claim that the Americans cannot—they have nothing to lose.
If Italy fails to go deep into the World Baseball Classic, we will likely label it an expected result. If Italy is able to make a run, however, all parties involved stand for an improvement in public image.
As a result, Italy's fanbase will grow, respect levels will improve and opportunities for future employment in the MLB could arise.
Who will win?
Rizzo, particularly, has a chance to show he can anchor a lineup. Although this is hardly a make-or-break situation, he can set the pace for what could be a breakout season in 2013.
If he loses, however, he simply returns to being the Cubs' rising first baseman—nothing to lose, everything to gain.
This is what will make Italy such a dangerous out against Team USA.
Most of the Italian team resides in and comes from American cities. To secure a win over the U.S. would not only offer Italy a taste of revenge for being passed over but would also familiarize the audience with Italian players before the MLB season commences.
We're only in group play, but a win for Italy against Team USA could do wonders for the careers of those involved in this game. A loss, however, would do nothing but return the players to where they came from.
With a hungry team prepared to go to war with the U.S. at the WBC, it is imperative that the Americans do not take the Italians lightly.