SYDNEY, Australia - After the game, Tom Lasorda grabbed Italy manager Silvano Ambrosioni. Speaking with his best Italian accent, Lasorda said, "Hey, Paesano, why don't you play like that all the time?"
Both men laughed. Lasorda's, though, was mixed with a touch of relief.
Italy, known for its pasta, not its baseball, took the mighty United States to the limit before losing, 4-2, yesterday.
Italian pitcher Jason Simontacchi gave Lasorda the ultimate gift on the U.S. manager's 73rd birthday. With two on and two out in a 2-2 game in the eighth inning, the Orioles' Mike Kinkade hit a comebacker to Simontracchi. But, incredibly, the pitcher threw the ball away, allowing the two winning runs to score.
What's Italian for choke?
"My cleat stuck in the dirt," Simontacchi said.
The United States improved its record to 5-0. With two preliminary games left, the team has assured itself a spot in the semifinals Tuesday.
That in itself isn't surprising. What is surprising is the parity that exists in international baseball. Yesterday's game was another demonstration.
Italy had no business being in the game with the United States, but the Italians hung in. The United States also had tough games with Japan and Korea. Meanwhile, the Netherlands pulled the upset of the tournament earlier in the week by handing Cuba its first defeat in Olympic competition after 21 straight victories.
"The competition is about what I expected," said U.S. left fielder Mike Neill. "Everyone was talking about Cuba. Well, I don't think Cuba is as good as everyone thinks they are. And the other teams aren't as bad as everyone thought. There's a lot of parity in this tournament."
The United States was impressed with the Italians' grit. After they fell behind 2-0 in the first, the game had the makings of a rout. Italy, though, rallied for two runs in the fourth, while Battista Perri shut down the Americans.
Now, Perri probably wouldn't even qualify for the low minors. To call what he was throwing a fastball would be a misnomer.
Still, Perri was able to throw off the Americans. Part of the problem is that they rarely face a pitcher of so little talent.
"His ball was just sitting there for us, and we'd end up hitting everything off the end of the bat," Neill said. "He was driving us crazy."
Right fielder Ernie Young thought the United States lent Perri too much of a helping hand.
"We've got to do a better job of pitch selection," Young said. "We weren't patient enough out there. When a guy's not throwing hard, you have to be patient."
The United States never did get it down, but Simontacchi took them off the hook. The victory was extra special for Lasorda.
Did the schedule-makers intentionally pit the United States against Italy on the Lasorda's birthday? Probably not, but Lasorda was glad they did.
"To beat Italy is special," Lasorda said. "To do it on my birthday made it extra special. Then to go 5-0 makes it even more special. I've had 73 birthdays, and I'll remember this one for a long time."