Panama blanks Italy to survive must-win contest

March 11th, 2023

TAICHUNG, Taiwan -- Panama came into its Saturday matchup in Pool A of the World Baseball Classic needing a win to keep its dreams of making it to the quarterfinals alive, while a loss by Italy would put its back against the wall. So, of course, they both played like their tournament lives were on the line.

But after a tight, defensive pitchers’ duel, Panama came out on top, 2-0.

A combination of four pitchers put zeros on the board for Team Panama – starting with former Minor League pitcher Harold Arauz. The righty went four innings – just as his manager Luis Ortiz had hoped pregame – striking out three, while giving up just two hits. went two more and hard-throwing went two more. closed things out in the ninth.

But for the most part, Italy’s staff matched up with Panama’s. Starter Michele Vassalotti went four innings, also struck out three and also gave up just two hits. Except, one of the those hits was a mammoth homer – with an even more mammoth bat flip – by Dodgers prospect .

The Italians also played incredible defense. It seemed almost every inning someone was making a run-saving play. made a running, Willie Mays-style catch in right and made a diving stab at third.

Perhaps the best was ’s full-out dive and flip to start a rally-killing double play in the fourth. All three plays saved runs.

"Yeah, it seems last night we made some mistakes on the mound, and  today, we threw the ball very well and caught the ball," Italy manager Mike Piazza said after the game. "We made some great defensive plays and just couldn't seem to get that breakthrough hit."

This helped Italy relievers and Matteo Bocchi give up just one run over four, the former allowing 's RBI single in the seventh.

"Hitting is hard when you face good pitching," Panama's manager Luis Ortiz said. "It's hard to scratch a couple runs. But we did. We got that solo jack and we manufactured another run."

Panama also had a shining defensive play from one its biggest stars here this week, . The former Met dove into the hole on a hard grounder by and fired for the out at first. Italy challenged the play because, well, it was almost impossible to believe someone could do something like that.

"The performance of this team is outstanding. I'm proud of these guys," Ortiz said. "We came here with that in mind. We had to win a couple games to change the perception of people in baseball. We got good players, and we proved that in this four-game stint."

Panama has completed play and now has a 2-2 record. Italy moves to 1-2 with one game left against the Netherlands (2-0). Both teams are still technically alive to advance. Italy plays the Dutch on Sunday (7 a.m. ET, FS2).

Chinese Taipei (1-1) and Cuba (1-2) are also in Pool A. Each team faces the other four in round-robin play, with the pool's winner and runner-up advancing to the quarterfinals in Tokyo against the top teams from Pool B.