PHOENIX — Losing to Italy again at the World Baseball Classic would have been bad enough.
But losing a second time, this time by mercy rule, in a game ostensibly about turning the page on the previous setback while also setting the stage for a trip to the second round?
“We got our asses kicked today, that’s all there is to it,” Canadian national team manager Ernie Whitt said Friday after a 14-4 drubbing far more shocking than the 6-2 setback to the Italians in Toronto four years ago, a defeat that makes advancing rather difficult.
“It doesn’t look good, let’s be honest,” added Whitt, “but stranger things have happened. We have to win the next two games now and get some help.”
At 2-0 thanks to Thursday’s comeback win over Mexico, Italy is in the driver’s seat with only a matchup against the United States remaining. The best-case scenario for the Canadians is that they take care of business from here on out and the European Champions win Pool D, although there are a couple of potential tiebreak scenarios that could still send them to Miami for the second round.
That Canada is in this position just one game into the Classic would have been hard enough to fathom when the day began, let alone the way it all went down. National team pitchers were pounded relentlessly by the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday in a tune-up, but that was easy to dismiss as an exhibition with no meaning.
This one? Not so much, but there’s no time to dwell on the embarrassment from what’s quite likely the ugliest loss in the senior national team’s history.
Chris Leroux gets the start Saturday afternoon (Sportsnet, 2:30 p.m. ET) in a must-win against Mexico, and the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander and those who follow him, including Minnesota Twins farmhand Andrew Albers, better come out dealing or the Canadians will find themselves needing to qualify for a spot in the 2017 Classic.
“Guys are in a little bit of disbelief. At this point you just have to forget about it,” said Scott Mathieson, who in the third surrendered the broken-bat RBI single to Alex Liddi and three-run homer to Chris Colabello that put Italy up for good.
“Not to take anything away from them, they played unbelievable, but you look at our team, personally I don’t think we should lose like that. Any time you give up that many runs, it’s frustrating. I know I want to get back out there and get some redemption.”
A feeling shared by many of his teammates, no doubt, but the Canadians — their roster drained by injuries (Brett Lawrie, Jesse Crain, Scott Diamond), outright rejections (Russell Martin, Ryan Dempster) and players unable to join because of the need to win big-league jobs (Jason Bay, Jeff Francis, George Kottaras, Rich Harden) — must do some navel-gazing about this one before taking the field again.
Their strategy against Italy was questioned last time, as Canada started Vince Perkins with the aim of saving top starter Scott Richmond for a do-or-die match against Venezuela they never made it to, and there’s more second-guessing to be done this time.
With the aim of saving some arms for the second round, manager Ernie Whitt decided to limit his starters to 49 pitches or less to keep them from having to rest four days before their next outing. That led to an effective Shawn Hill’s departure with two out and one on in the third, and Mathieson was unable to keep things at 1-1.
Down by four, Canada responded positively in the top of the fourth by putting on its first two batters, but with slop-tossing left-hander Chris Cooper on the mound and right-handed hitting Chris Robinson up, Whitt controversially called for a sacrifice bunt, even though the next two hitters were both southpaws.
Adam Loewen promptly struck out and Pete Orr flew out in foul territory, ending the threat and triggering debate over why Whitt played for a couple of runs so early in the game, surrendering his only matchup advantage at the same time.
“Trying to chip away at the lead,” explained Whitt. “We had a lot of game left, and we’re full of left handed hitters (seven of nine in the starting lineup). And we trust every hitter to come up to do the job, and we didn’t do it. That was my reason at that time.
“I wouldn’t have done it in the sixth. Fourth inning, yes.”
The Canadians didn’t threaten again until sixth, after Mario Chiarini’s sacrifice fly extended Italy’s edge to 6-1, when Loewen’s run-scoring groundout ended Cooper’s streak of 5.2 scoreless innings against them dating back to ’09.
And momentum seemed to be shifting in the seventh, when Michael Saunders’ two-run single made it 6-4.
But with the chance to do further damage, pinch-hitter Tim Smith struck out on a breaking ball by his ankles against reliever Brian Sweeney to end the frame, and a Canadian bullpen considered a strength coming into the tournament promptly surrendered a three-spot in the bottom of the seventh.
Phillippe Aumont of the Philadelphia Phillies recorded the first two outs and then a broken-bat RBI single by Chiarini was followed by Drew Butera’s two-run double to make it 9-4.
Then things came totally undone in the eighth, when Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Jimmy Henderson gave up a leadoff double to Nick Punto and a run-scoring single to Chris DeNorfia before being replaced by R.J. Swindle.
The free agent lefty added to the team Monday night in place of the injured Jesse Crain — he says he was home with his wife watching “The Bachelorette” when he got the surprise invitation — failed to record an out, going walk, single, RBI single, ground-rule two-run double, RBI single.
Adding insult to injury is that the Italians actually celebrated the mercy-rule win twice — as Mike Costanzo’s ground-rule double was initially ruled a home run and later overturned by replay after he had been mobbed by teammates as he stepped on home plate.
That only delayed the inevitable, Chiarini following with a drive to centre that would have brought home more if not for the mercy rule.
“Those guys were swinging the bats well, you can’t take that away from them,” said Saunders. “When we put some runs on the board, they didn’t get down. They came right back up and they were fighting AB through AB.
“Obviously we weren’t happy. Baseball’s a grind, man, baseball is so mental and we’ve got to learn to let this go. The quicker the better. We have a lot of tournament left.”
Maybe, but there’s no margin for error left, a lot of improvements to be made, and a significant amount of embarrassment to overcome in short order.