PHOENIX – Back at the site of perhaps the most significant victory in national team history, the Canadians tried to make history to repeat itself in the World Baseball Classic against the United States at Chase Field, and for a while Sunday it did.
Just like in 2006, when then top pitching prospect Adam Loewen set the tone in what ended as an 8-6 win, Pittsburgh Pirates phenom Jameson Taillon came out firing in the Pool D finale. And Loewen, back in the World Baseball Classic as an outfielder, delivered big against the Americans once again.
Only this time, there were no lucky escapes, like when Chase Utley’s eighth-inning blast off Scott Mathieson landed in Adam Stern’s glove by the wall in centre. Instead, Adam Jones’ eighth-inning drive to centre was beyond the reach of Tyson Gillies, and cashed in the tying and go-ahead runs.
And when all was said and done, there was no upset win, either, a gripping 9-4 setback to the Americans ending a fascinating run at the Classic that included a humiliating mercy-rule loss to Italy and a riveting victory over Mexico that will be remembered for the “Dustup in the Desert.”
“All those things came back in my mind, and I went ‘Man, that would be awesome if (Gillies) runs that ball down, guys are stealing, we double them off, get out of the inning,’” said first baseman Justin Morneau. “But a difference of a couple of feet there and we end up losing, they get the big hit. We had the chance in the bottom of the eighth to answer back, we got one back, had the go-ahead run at second base, just one big hit away.
“That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Actually, that’s the way it goes for Canada always at the Classic, and in the 2017 edition of the event, wouldn’t it be nice to see the national team for once competing with a full complement of the country’s top players.
Without slighting anyone from the 2013 squad – everyone on it should be commended for playing their guts out – the talent pool was depleted by injuries to Brett Lawrie, Jesse Crain and Scott Diamond, the uncertain big-league statuses of Jason Bay, Jeff Francis and George Kottaras, and outright rejections from Ryan Dempster and Russell Martin. Throw in teams refusing to let players take part, like the Seattle Mariners and lefty pitching prospect James Paxton, and advancing out of the second round was always going to be an uphill climb.
“I don’t think that will ever be a reality,” Morneau said of having everyone come out. “There are injuries, guys trying to make teams, teams holding guys back, we’ve seen that a few times in different events, where teams don’t specifically say you can’t go but recommend that it’s not a good idea you go, so they kind of put the pressure on the player instead of encouraging it.
“In the future hopefully we have as many guys as we can, but you know what, we’ll grind it out with whomever’s here and we have a tremendous amount of pride as Canadians in everything that we do.”
That was evident in how the national team rebounded from Friday’s unfathomable loss to Italy with Saturday’s stirring triumph over Mexico, capped by a chaotic ninth-inning brawl that gave an already tight group a galvanizing moment.
The energy from that carried over into another gutsy and determined effort against the Americans, one that had them five outs away from the second round in Miami.
“After that Mexico game, everybody was pumped up and we brought that into this game early,” said Loewen, who started and won the ’06 contest and had two hits and two RBIs on Sunday. “Everybody played their hearts out. It’s disappointing, but we left everything we had on the field.”
For the Canadians, that’s more than just empty jingoism.
On paper, they had no business pushing a far deeper and more talented American squad to the brink, but this is a group adept at playing beyond the sum of its parts because of the determination they have to play for one another. In small sample sizes, it can make a difference.
“I’m not necessarily a believer in chemistry on a baseball team, I think it’s important to have guys getting along but I believe in talent and execution, that’s how you win games,” said first baseman Joey Votto. “In a tournament like this where it’s so short and there’s only a few ballgames that matter, chemistry really does play an important part because there are so many momentum swings. If you’re playing for your country, and you play for the guys you know and grew up with, no matter what you’re up against you still think you have a chance. When I play with this team, it feels like the teams I played on when I was 11 and 14 and 16, like the guys I grew up with, and you don’t get that a lot.”
Still, that only goes so far, and the lack of depth came back to bite the Canadians in a couple of ways Sunday.
Lacking any more palatable options, manager Ernie Whitt stuck with the slumping Tyson Gillies (0-for-14 over the three games) in the leadoff spot. And in the ninth, seeking to avoid using closer John Axford on back-to-back days, Whitt let Scott Mathieson start the frame and he left a mess that Axford couldn’t escape, with Eric Hosmer’s three-run double ending any hopes of a Canadian comeback.
Axford pitched the ninth in Saturday’s thumping of Mexico only because the Canadian bullpen was out of arms thanks to Friday’s spanking from Italy, and Jay Johnson’s ejection in the brawl.
“I didn’t want to use him as much as we did (Sunday) even,” said Whitt. “If we lost the game, we lost the game.”
So they did, even though they were right where they wanted to be with set-up man Jimmy Henderson starting the eighth nursing a 3-2 lead thanks to Loewen’s go-ahead RBI single in the sixth.
But Henderson struggled out of the gate, ended up surrendering the two-run double by Jones that Gillies couldn’t chase down plus an RBI single to Shane Victorino that made it 5-3 U.S., and the Canadians couldn’t recover, even after Loewen’s run-scoring groundout in the bottom of the inning narrowed the gap.
“I was ahead of (Jones), he took a good cut at the fastball the previous pitch, so we went to the slider and I just didn’t get it low enough,” lamented Henderson. “I got a taste of what playoff baseball would be like, I’m guessing. I never pitched in atmosphere like this before, that’s not an excuse, I was ready to go. I gave it my best effort, I went out there and did my best.”
People recognized that and the Chase Field gathering of 22,425 sounded at least half Canadian, and during the pre-game anthems, they belted out O Canada as loud as you’d hear at any hockey arena north of the 49th.
Canada’s top performers at the Classic were Michael Saunders – named Pool D MVP after batting 8-for-11 with seven RBIs in three games – who hit a two-run blast in the second to open the scoring Sunday, Justin Morneau, who was 7-for-11 with three RBIs, and Chris Robinson, who was 5-for-9 replacing Martin while serving as a catalyst with his determined play.
And Taillon certainly enjoyed a coming out party by dominating for four innings, allowing two runs, one earned, on two hits and a walk with three strikeouts.
The 21-year-old right-hander born in Winter Haven, Fla., and raised in The Woodlands, Texas by Canadian parents is eligible to play for the United States at the next Classic, by which time he’s expected to be a star, but said he’d remember the way the national team welcomed him at this tournament.
Yet Canada was still left mulling a third-place finish third in Pool D, but at least the squad won’t have to qualify for the 2017 event if the current rules are maintained that way it did after ’09 elimination by Italy. That unwanted chore belongs to the Mexicans, a deserved fate for them.
But this group had its eyes on a bigger prize.
“Whenever you represent your country, it really doesn’t matter how you do, as long as you win,” said Saunders. “We played a tough game and obviously the U.S. came out on top, but we’re holding our heads high. We came to this tournament prepared and we felt like we played well. A few innings didn’t go our way, but I think we played well and I think we showed the world that Canada is here to stay.”
Ultimately, however, history did repeat itself Sunday, just not the way the Canadians wanted, with them still in search or their first trip to the Classic’s second round.