PHOENIX -- Brewers right-hander Mark DiFelice and catcher Vinny Rottino have never stepped foot on Italian soil. But they have proudly worn "Italia" across their chests this week while preparing for the nation's World Baseball Classic opener against Venezuela on Saturday night. The game, televised on MLB Network at 7 p.m. CT and staged at Rogers Centre in Toronto, will have a Milwaukee flair. DiFelice was officially named Friday as Italy's "Opening Day" starter, and Rottino was expected to complete the battery. "I'm looking forward to it, and I'm taking it seriously, too," DiFelice said before he departed for the Classic. "These are our Olympics, basically. We're representing a country now, and that's a big thing."
Even if it's a country they have never been to. Both DiFelice and Rottino were contacted by Italian baseball officials back in 2006 ahead of the inaugural Classic, but they declined invitations. DiFelice was entering his first season in the Cubs' organization and did not feel right about leaving. Rottino was in his first Major League camp with Milwaukee and had similar reservations. Rottino remembers that first phone call. His grandfather was born in Italy, but he had no contacts with Italian baseball. "I said, 'How did you get my name?'" Rottino said. "And they told me they literally looked at big league rosters for names that sounded Italian." DiFelice, too, has Italian roots. He pronounces his name "dee-FA-lease," but the traditional pronunciation is "dee-fa-LEE-chay," and his father's heritage is 100 percent Italian. Three of Mark's four grandparents are full-blooded Italian, and six of his eight great-grandparents were born in Italy. The invitation for the 2006 Classic was not DiFelice's first contact with Italian baseball officials. They also contacted him in '05, when DiFelice was released by the Nationals and signed with Somerset of the independent Atlantic League. They offered DiFelice a chance to play in the Italian professional league. He would have earned $2,000-$4,000 per month plus an apartment and a motor scooter, and the league only staged games three days a week, Friday through Sunday. The chance to explore his ancestral homeland was intriguing. Instead, DiFelice remained stateside to chase his Major League dream. The Brewers picked him up in January 2007, and in May '08, after parts of 11 years in the Minors, DiFelice finally made it. He went 1-0 with a 2.84 ERA in 15 relief appearances for the Brewers last season. While Rottino, who was removed from the 40-man roster last month, is likely to begin the year at Triple-A Nashville, DiFelice is vying for a spot in the Brewers' bullpen. Leaving for the Classic meant that new manager Ken Macha would have fewer opportunities to see him pitch. DiFelice has two Minor League options remaining. "I thought about that, but you know what? Milwaukee can see me pitch just as easily in the Classic against Venezuela, and I can get more innings working for the Italian team," DiFelice said. "I think it might even be better for me because I really still see myself as a starter, and [in the Classic] I can pitch five or six innings. I'm looking at it as a positive." DiFelice made one Cactus League appearance with Milwaukee before departing on March 1, tossing two scoreless innings. Classic rules stipulate that he can throw as many as 70 pitches in Italy's first-round games, then as many as 75 pitches should Italy pull some huge upsets and advance. DiFelice threw on his own during the offseason to get his arm "stretched out" for the tournament. Italy is the underdog of Pool C, which also includes the U.S., Canada and Venezuela. Ten of the 28 players on Italy's roster have big league experience, including Rottino, the Rangers' Frank Catalanotto and the Twins' Nick Punto. Rottino's opportunity to start came after Angels catcher Mike Napoli bowed out of the Classic. Carlos Silva was slated to start for a Venezuelan team packed with offensive stars like Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, Bobby Abreu, Melvin Mora and Carlos Guillen. The ninth inning should be in good hands, too, with star closer Francisco Rodriguez coming off a 62-save season. "You have a couple of good games pitched, you get a big hit here or there, and the next thing you know, you're beating up on some good teams," Catalanotto said. "We're hoping to be the spoiler."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.