MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo has never been to Italy, but over the past 10 days he helped bring the country of his ancestors where it had never been before -- the second round of the World Baseball Classic.
"It was bittersweet," Rizzo said of his experience playing for Team Italy, which reached the second round for the first time in three Classic appearances. "Nobody expected us to do well. The competition we faced was way better than our talent level, but that's baseball."
Rizzo was among a small handful of Major Leaguers playing for Italy, but the team defied expectation, coming from behind to beat Mexico and invoking the mercy rule on Canada as it eliminated both teams and advanced out of the first round with Team USA.
"You had to really slow the game down as much as possible, every single pitch, every inning," Rizzo said of the playoff atmosphere throughout the World Baseball Classic. "Especially as the game got later on, your at-bats being more [critical], it's really about slowing the game down and focusing."
Ultimately, the aggressive more talented teams sped past Italy as its luck turned, squandering a 2-0 lead in a loss to Team USA in the final game of the first round. Italy then lost leads of 4-0 and 3-0 -- thanks to a three-run double from Rizzo -- against the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, respectively.
"That's something I wouldn't be able to get here, even in the regular season," Rizzo said of the intensity of elimination games. "[During the season], if you win or lose a game in the later innings, you know you can still play tomorrow. This is kind of like a playoff atmosphere -- you lose, you're done."
With all of Italy behind them, the blend of Major and Minor League players of Italian descent and Italian-based players with no stateside experience came together to further the nation's profile on the diamond.
"All the Italian guys who are from the country were so nice to all of us who weren't from there," Rizzo said. "They're excited to be here, just as we were excited to be in the clubhouse and play. That's why our team did well, because everyone wasn't selfish and had fun, and no one had egos."
Even Rizzo's Chicago teammates found themselves rooting for Rizzo and his new "amici" as their lone representative to the Classic captivated the Cubs' attention.
"It was a rollercoaster," Rizzo said. "The [Cubs] here were so excited. No one expected us to do well. We had guys pulling for Italy over USA. It was just funny. We were the underdogs. It was a lot of fun. We played well. We gave everyone a run for their money."
With Italy eliminated in Miami on Wednesday, Cubs manager Dale Sveum told Rizzo to catch his breath at home in Fort Lauderdale before returning to Phoenix on Friday night. Rizzo will be in the lineup at first for Saturday's and Sunday's split-squad games, and is focused on preparing for Opening Day.
"It's my first time going into April 1st as the Opening Day starter," Rizzo said. "But it's like every other year. I go out and compete. The intensity was 10 notches higher [in the World Baseball Classic] than Spring Training, but I still go out here and compete every day the same way I did there."
Baez backing his swagger with a potent bat
LAS VEGAS -- The legend of Javier Baez grew after he hit a dramatic two-run walk-off home run on Friday in the ninth to lift the split-squad Cubs over Team Japan. Baez told teammate Welington Castillo, who was on deck, that he wouldn't need to hit.
Cubs fans who haven't seen Baez need to watch this weekend. On Monday, the shortstop was expected to be among the players sent to the Minor League camp, joining highly touted outfielder Jorge Soler and third baseman Christian Villanueva.
Baez headed into Saturday's game with a .290 average, two homers and six RBIs in 31 at-bats -- and that doesn't include his four at-bats on Friday in the exhibition -- which was fourth on the team behind Darwin Barney, Brad Nelson, and Nate Schierholtz. That's a lot for a player projected for Class A.
"The last week, it seemed like he turned into a different kid, the way he went about things, his at-bats," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "I think that inner cockiness will always be something that's a huge asset for any good player. People who play in the big leagues, there's always an edge to them, one way or the other. He's got that edge. He wants to be that guy. I think he got comfortable as big league camp went on in the environment and with the guys. We all know it's there."
The Cubs' No. 1 pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, Baez isn't shy. He has a MLB logo tattooed on the back of his neck. Some teammates razzed him by adding a "Rookie of the Year" decal on the back of his car.
What Sveum's been happy with is watching Baez develop. His work habits have improved as camp has progressed.
What about that cockiness?
"As long as you back it up, it's OK," Sveum said. "That's what good players do."
Jackson dealing with inflamed right shoulder
LAS VEGAS -- Cubs outfielder Brett Jackson had an MRI on his right shoulder, which revealed some inflammation. He'll be sidelined about one week.
"I'm going to keep working every day," Jackson said on Saturday in Mesa, Ariz. "No. 1 is to get 100 percent healthy again. I'm confident that we're going to take care of that quickly, and obviously when I'm back we'll focus on what's next."
Jackson said he felt the soreness throwing.
"I'm confident we're going to knock it out quickly and be healthy for the season," he said.
• Third baseman Ian Stewart, trying to come back from a sore left quad, chose not to play in a Minor League game on Saturday and instead continue to rehab his leg. The Cubs are letting the third baseman tell them what he can and can't do. Stewart did play on Thursday in a Minor League contest, his first game action since Feb. 21, when he injured his leg.
• Matt Garza, sidelined with a strained left lat, is making progress with his throwing program. So far, there is no time table for him to get on a mound. Garza was not expected to be ready for the regular season until May at the earliest.
Sveum satisfied with Cubs' position players
LAS VEGAS -- Cubs manager Dale Sveum said on Saturday that he hasn't given general manager Jed Hoyer a wish list of what he needs heading into the season, adding that he's comfortable with the position players on the roster.
When the Cubs made their mid-March trip to Las Vegas last year, they didn't know they would add reliever Shawn Camp and infielder Luis Valbuena, both acquired in late March. Camp was the Cubs' first-half MVP last year, and Valbuena took over at third when Ian Stewart was injured.
"The thing you're doing is always looking to get better, whether it's a player here or a player there, bullpen spot, left-handed reliever," Sveum said. "You're always just looking."
The Cubs also feel better about their pitching depth this year compared to 2012. Last year's Rule 5 Draft pick, Lendy Castillo, was trying to make the leap from Class A to the big leagues. This year's Rule 5 pick, Hector Rondon, was the Indians' Minor League pitcher of the year in 2009, and has pitched in 105 Minor League games. Castillo had pitched in 45, and was a converted infielder.
"Last year, we went into the last week with so much youth in the bullpen and question marks with how [Kerry Wood] was going to be health-wise -- and obviously that didn't turn out too good -- and we didn't have any depth," Sveum said. "It was almost a necessity to pick up Camp, and he had a great year. It was more a durable arm, a guy who could throw strikes."
Wood taking measures to ensure field's safety
LAS VEGAS -- Former Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood said they are doing everything possible to make certain the area for the proposed Kerry Wood Field will be safe for children.
Construction was stopped after contaminants were found in the soil at the site of the $5 million, 1,100-seat baseball stadium, to be built behind Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago.
"We're making progress," Wood said on Saturday. "We're not going to do anything that's not safe for kids. We're working to rectify it, hopefully sooner than later. The plans are still to get it up and going and do what we have to do."
Wood, who is a guest instructor this spring after retiring last May, said he hopes to resume construction this year.
Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Park District, who are among the partners in the stadium, are working on a site remediation plan to be filed with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
It's not the first time contaminated soil has been found at the site. In 2007, the school replaced its football field and the soil was dug up at that time, and found to be contaminated. It took one year for that soil to be removed.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.