Good Evening
Good Evening

Mike Piazza thinking inside the box for Italy

Italy hitting coach Mike Piazza watches from the

Italy hitting coach Mike Piazza watches from the dugout during the sixth inning of an exhibition baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels. (March 6, 2013) Credit: AP

PHOENIX -- Maybe Mike Piazza eventually can get into the Hall of Fame as a hitting coach.

Denied his first Cooperstown bid in January, Piazza has found a way to help Italy win its first two games in the World Baseball Classic, including Friday's 14-4 mercy-rule stomping of Canada. Italy played warm-up act to the evening's main event, USA against Mexico, but delivered a prime-time offensive show with 17 hits.

In the eighth inning, it appeared that Italy had won on a walk-off grand slam by the Nationals' Mike Costanzo. That set off a helmet-flipping celebration at the plate, only to have the homer switched to a two-run double by video review.

The next batter, Mario Chiarini, finished the rout with a two-run single that ignited another dugout-clearing party. For Piazza, who played for Italy in the 2006 WBC before becoming the team's hitting coach, this was a proud moment.

"It's something for me that's very gratifying," Piazza said. "And it's really fun to at least feel like I'm giving back to the game that gave so much to me. I know how much coaches affected me and developed me during my career."

As for beyond the WBC, and the possibility of joining a major-league staff in that capacity, Piazza sounds open to an invitation. "I never say never," he said. "I just try to stay in the moment and enjoy this. We'll see what the future holds."

Before Tuesday's exhibition opener against the Athletics, Italy's hitters resembled a bunch of weekend golfers competing in a longest-drive contest. With Piazza watching from behind the cage during batting practice, the players erupted every time a teammate sent one deep.

If a fly ball made it over the wall, no matter how small the margin, the group went wild.

They were the type of hits that Piazza, during his playing days, would have considered jam shots, ones he could have driven that far off his fists.

Piazza's goal isn't to make over Italy in his image. And his approach seems to be working.

"He's got a lot of knowledge," said Tony Granato, who never made it above Class A in 508 minor-league games before switching to the Italian league. "I mean, he's one of the greatest hitters ever. I like him a lot because he's really smart. He's open to talking with us and he keeps things pretty simple. He doesn't try to reinvent anything with anybody or change anybody. He just helps us work with the skills that we have and help us improve if we need it."

Piazza was always a grip-it-and-rip-it type of slugger himself, so given the relatively short period of time he has had to work with this roster, it's not as though he has been able to overanalyze very much. But whatever advice or adjustments he has provided seem to have been effective.

Providing a few catchphrases doesn't hurt, either. When Drew Butera, one of Italy's few players with major-league experience, homered in Thursday's 6-5 win over Mexico, he had Piazza's words ringing in his head: "Stand your ground."

"I try to come up with little fun expressions," Piazza said. "I just try to keep them focused . . . I think one of our [past] weaknesses in this tournament is when we got down, we sort of rolled over a little bit.

"I'm elated. I'm just happy these guys are doing the job. They're executing, they're being really tough outs and they're really battling, which is fun to see."

New York Sports