PHOENIX — Tournaments such as the World Baseball Classic demand a cut-throat brand of the sport, and that’s precisely what Canada delivered in a must-win game Saturday afternoon.
The national team certainly answered the bell 24 hours after an embarrassing mercy-rule loss to Italy, and when Mexico took exception to the squad’s relentlessness in the ninth inning, the Canadians were ready with a reply there, too, giving more than they took in a chaotic bench-clearing brawl.
They didn’t need any additional galvanizing moments after a 10-3 win, but the Mexicans gave them some with their bush-league reaction to a bunt single by catcher Chris Robinson — the embodiment of Canadian determination and resiliency on this day — leading off the ninth.
The bottom line once all the mayhem was over? Canada (1-1) can clinch a berth in the second of the Classic alongside Italy (2-1) by defeating the United States (1-1) on Sunday, while Mexico is done at 1-2 thanks to a victory that left Canucks charged up everywhere.
"Don Cherry can’t wait to get on the air," said Canadian first base coach Larry Walker, and he was bang on. The national team was the second topic of discussion on Coach’s Corner, right after a tribute to the late Stompin’ Tom Connors.
"I think the boys are ready and up for the challenge," continued Walker. "There should be some carryover. The guys are fired up. I’m fired up and I just stand in a box and say there’re two outs. It’s a neat thing."
The potential is there for it to be far more than that, especially if Canada delivers Sunday when gilt-edged Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon starts against Texas Rangers lefty Derek Holland at Chase Field, site of the 2006 Classic upset of the Americans.
The victory over Mexico will rank right alongside that one in national team lore, both for the way the Canadians outplayed their opponents and how they defended themselves when things got silly.
As Justin Morneau, underlining his status as the heart of Canadian baseball with a four-hit, three-RBI performance, put it: "There’s a point where you have to stand up for yourself."
That came in the ninth inning, after Robinson -- already with a takeout slide at second base, a big-time collision at home plate the pitch after taking a foul tip off his delicates, and an RBI single under his belt -- bunted to open the inning with Canada up 9-3.
While that broke an unwritten rule about running up the score, it’s not applicable in tournaments where run differential is a tiebreaker, something discussed with each team beforehand and that Mexican manager Rick Renteria says he may not have explained properly to his players.
Regardless, third baseman Luis Cruz took exception, made a gesture demanding that Arnold Leon plunk the next Canadian hitter, and the reliever did just that after first missing twice and being warned by home plate umpire Brian Gorman, breaking another unwritten rule applicable in every setting.
"He had one shot to hit our player. He missed him twice," said manager Ernie Whitt, clearly angry. "So, yeah, something’s got to be done about it."
Rene Tosoni exchanged words with Leon after the second miss and began walking toward the mound after getting pegged in the back, prompting both dugouts and bullpens to empty. Things got out of control when Cruz threw a punch toward a group of Canadian players including Scott Mathieson, and mayhem ensued.
Centre-fielder Eduardo Arredondo took swings at several players and was eventually thrown to the ground and pounded by reliever Jay Johnson. Alfredo Aceves was in the middle of several skirmishes, including one with Tyson Gillies, and was eventually pulled from the fray by Walker.
"I have a hold of him and I think I saw Satan in his eyes. That was scary looking," said Walker. "I was just hoping he didn’t start throwing punches at me. I would have been in trouble."
Once things were calmed between the teams, the chaos nearly spilled over into the stands after a few of the Canadians popped the team logo at the crowd, with a fan throwing a water bottle that hit pitching coach Denis Boucher in the face. Shortstop Cale Iorg whipped it back into the stands, and several Canadian players traded words with the predominantly pro-Mexican crowd of 19,581 before security managed to keep hostile fans at bay.
The PA announcer urged calm and threatened the immediate arrest and hefty fines of those who didn’t co-operate but the message didn’t take, as several fights broke out in the crowd and a foul ball thrown back into play from the stands nearly hit Walker. Whitt threatened to pull his team off the field after that one.
The place felt like a tinder box.
"All of a sudden you take yourself away from the game, now you’re thinking about people’s health," said Robinson. "I saw the ball that was thrown at Walker, it’s scary. People sometimes forget we’re baseball players, but we’re fathers and sons and we’re husbands. You’ve got to take that away from it, you know what I mean?"
The brawl is the second in international baseball between the countries, the previous one taking place at the 1991 Pan American Games in Havana and leaving several participants hospitalized.
Ejected from this one were Tosoni, Johnson and Pete Orr for Canada and Arredondo, Aceves and Oliver Perez for Mexico, and the tournament disciplinary committee made up of members from Major League Baseball and the players association was reviewing the incident. There was no known timeframe for a decision.
Regardless, the bubbling over of emotions came after 180-degree turns for both teams, the Canadians bouncing back from the mercy-rule loss to Italy, the Mexican squandering an upset of the United States.
"These guys believe in each other...don’t be surprised when we do something special...we won’t be," Robinson tweeted in the morning and the catcher from Dorchester, Ont., was near prophetic about it.
His take-out slide on a double-play to end the first showed that the national team meant business Saturday and then in the fourth, a pitch after taking a foul tip in the manhood, he stood his ground on a play at the plate, took a huge hit from Karim Garcia, and recorded the out.
"That’s kind of our M.O. – we want to play the game hard, we play it properly," said Robinson. "You get an opportunity to help a team, help your teammates by breaking up a double play or something, that’s something you have to do.
"And that’s the way that we play as a whole."
Michael Saunders was 4-for-4 with a walk and three RBIs, Taylor Green reached four times and scored three runs, Joey Votto came around both times he reached, and Pete Orr added an important RBI single in the sixth to give the Canadians some breathing room after the Mexicans had pulled within one.
The maligned Canadian pitching redeemed itself too, beginning with starter Chris Leroux, who allowed an unearned run in three innings of work. Andrew Albers recovered from a shaky start to deliver three more frames, Trystan Magnuson, roughed up for two homers in an exhibition outing Wednesday, pitched a scoreless seventh and eighth, and John Axford closed things out in the ninth.
"I’m just glad that I could keep the team in it," said Leroux. "After the Mexico-USA game when Mexico won, everybody knew that it was in our hands. All we had to do was win out (Saturday) and (Sunday) and we're in. So we got the first half done and we're ready to kick them out (Sunday) against the USA."
The Canadians got off to a dream start in this one when they greeted Marco Estrada in the first with singles by Green and Votto, an RBI double by Morneau, a two-run single by Saunders and an RBI single by Robinson.
Staked to a big lead, Leroux was erratic in the first, allowing two hits in a 27-pitch frame, but the only damage against him came when Votto threw away a potential double-play ball, allowing Eduardo Arredondo to come around and cut into the Canadian lead.
Leroux, however, settled in after that in scoreless second and third frames, but the wasted pitches in the first kept him from going deeper than that.
On came Albers, who wasn’t fooling anyone out of the gate, surrendering three straight singles and a double plus a sacrifice fly to make it a one-run game. The damage would have been much worse if not for Tyson Gillies throwing out Karim Garcia at home, with Robinson withstanding a big collision to record the out.
Once Albers emerged from the fourth he cruised, the Canadians expanded their lead, and emotions blew up in the end.
It doesn’t matter. The Canadians, ousted by being on the wrong side of a tie-breaker at the 2006 Classic, are now in good shape this time around.
"It was a really good baseball game, it was a good battle," said Morneau. "Two teams fighting to stay alive in this tournament. Whoever says that guys are just here as an extra spring training game or just here to be say they represented their country and then go home obviously didn't see how intense that game was, and what it means to everybody that was involved in it.
"You had intensity from both sides and something unfortunate happened towards the end of it, but, we didn’t bring (Friday’s) game into (Saturday’s) game and we won't bring (Saturday’s) game into (Sunday’s) game. We’ll start over again and hopefully it’s a good, clean game, but you never know what’s going to happen."
No, you don’t, which is what makes the World Baseball Classic so compelling. And those who didn’t know beforehand sure do now, Canada is a team not to be messed with.