PHOENIX – Jameson Taillon has the stuff to overpower his opponents, and if he can command it consistently the Americans may very well have their hands full with him Sunday at the World Baseball Classic.
The 21-year-old phenom, chosen second overall by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2010, made an impressive debut for Canada on Tuesday afternoon with 2.2 solid innings in a 7-4 exhibition victory over the Milwaukee Brewers.
While a four-run rally in the eighth decided things, Taillon’s work early on is noteworthy given the wild-card element he brings to his scheduled start against the United States.
Canada is hoping its fate will be settled by the time that contest comes around, as victories over Italy and Mexico in its first two games should be enough to secure a berth in the second round.
If not, the national team will need Taillon to do what Adam Loewen did in 2006, provide an element of surprise against a start-studded roster and contribute to an upset win.
"I think (Tuesday) sets me up well" for Sunday, Taillon said after allowing two runs on four hits, all coming with two out in the third. "Obviously not my best outing, I would have liked to have better results, but as far as getting out there, getting my pitch count, almost getting through three, that's big."
Taillon, born and raised in the United States to Canadian parents, walked three, two of them in the first and another in the second, but routinely popped catcher Chris Robinson's mitt and overcame his early wildness while fighting a head cold.
On the whole, his performance made for a pretty decent national team debut, with the potential of a more memorable outing his next time out.
"It was an absolute blast, the guys are a lot of fun, they play extremely hard, it's just a good atmosphere to be in," said Taillon. "Putting on the Canada jersey was a big honour and it felt good."
FAMILY REUNION: Tuesday's contest was particularly special for the Iorg family, giving Canada shortstop Cale a rare opportunity to play before his dad Garth, Milwaukee's first base coach.
According to the son, that hasn't happened since a stint in the Arizona Fall League a few years back, and he made his dad, a long-time infielder and later coach with the Blue Jays, proud by turning a tough double play to end the second, taking a late relay throw off Blake Lalli's slow roller from Pete Orr, avoiding a base-runner and making a strong throw to first. He also doubled in the seventh.
"Even though it was an exhibition game it was still cool," said Cale, who plays in the Detroit Tigers system. "(Garth) called me up and said we're playing you guys first, I was excited and I know my parents and my wife, everyone was excited for this game."
Cale is eligible to play for Canada having been born in Toronto on Sept. 6, 1985, a few weeks before the Blue Jays clinched their first AL East crown. His dad's playing career came to an end two years later and Cale doesn't remember those days, but Garth's coaching career began soon after and his three sons became fixtures at various ballparks along the way.
"As soon as the summer hit and we were out of school we were with my dad every day," said Cale. "My dad was awesome, never worried about me and my brothers going to the park, he's wake us up early and say 'Let's go.' We'd go on road trips with him and everything.
"Up until I was 16 I thought major-league players were my best friends. I'm sure I was annoying to them, but they were my best friends being 10 years old, Alex Gonzalez, Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, guys like that. They were my heroes and my best friends."
Though Cale went to high school in Knoxville and later made Florida his base, he grew up a Toronto Maple Leafs fan and cites Mario Lemieux as his favourite player from childhood. He played roller hockey and football along with baseball, and grinned when asked how he defines his Canadian-ness.
"It probably wouldn't be too fair to say I'm a full-blooded Canadian, O Canada and all that, but it doesn't mean I don't love the country and it doesn't mean I don't have great memories associated with Canada and guys there," said Cale. "I'm blessed to have citizenship for both (countries)."
THE ARMS: Scott Mathieson, Shawn Hill, Andrew Albers, Jim Henderson and John Axford each followed in relief of Taillon, with Mathieson, Henderson and Axford each putting up zeroes.
Henderson, facing his Brewers teammates, got a big assist on his goose egg by left-fielder Adam Loewen, who made a leaping grab against the wall on a Josh Prince drive to strand two runners.
Axford, the Brewers closer, put his club to bed in a clean ninth.
Mathieson was especially impressive, striking out two of the four batters he faced in 1.1 clean innings of work.
"He's been over in Japan throwing quite a bit so that helps out I'm sure," said manager Ernie Whitt. "He definitely looked a lot further ahead than the hitters and I expect it so it was nice to see."
THE BATS: Manager Ernie Whitt cited Michael Saunders as a potential source of power and the Seattle Mariners outfielder hit the club's only home run Tuesday, a solo blast in the fourth that tied things up 2-2.
While that stroke was impressive, perhaps the most promising sign for the Canadians was the discipline they showed at the plate in taking 10 walks, including two each from Tim Smith and Chris Robinson. Justin Morneau and Jonathan Malo each worked bases-loaded walks and the team struck out just three times.
"We're going to grind out at-bats for sure," said Saunders. "On paper we can compete with anybody, we're not coming in as a powerhouse however we're not a team to be forgotten about, either. In order to do well we're going to have to grind out at-bats, take our walks when they give it to us and when we get runners on base, runners in scoring position, we need to keep our concentration to try and get that key hit."
Tyson Gillies with an RBI single, Malo's run-scoring walk, a Jimmy Van Ostrand double play and a Mike Gonzalez wild pitch brought in the decisive runs in the eighth.
Gillies finished 2-for-5 with a run, but also missed a sign to irk Whitt.
"He has speed and there was one situation when I wanted him to steal and he didn't go, so we're going to talk about that," said Whitt. "A guy with speed like that, he needs to put some more pressure on the defence and we want him to run a little bit more."
The Canadians had a batter reach in every inning except the first.
DON'T RUN ON ME: Chris Robinson and John Suomi each threw out a Brewers baserunner trying to steal third base by a wide margin.
Robinson cut down Norichika Aoki with one out in the third inning, while Suomi threw out Josh Prince with one out in the seventh.
Maryvale Ballpark, spring home of the Brewers. twitter.com/ShiDavidi/stat…
— Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi) March 5, 2013