DUNEDIN, Fla. – The Toronto Blue Jays’ annual friendly with the Canadian junior (18 and under) national team is always a great day at the ballpark, with the young Canadians getting the chance to mix, mingle and learn from the men in whose shoes they want to someday walk.
Junior Nats starter Josh Burgmann, one of only four 18-year-olds on the team, gave up four runs in an 1.2 innings of work, but he was beaming when he came up to our broadcast booth after his day was done, saying that he was going to call home and tell his mother that he got Russell Martin to ground into a double play. His father was lucky enough to have been at the ballpark to watch it himself.
It is, without question, a phenomenal experience for the youngsters, working under the tutelage of Greg Hamilton, the Grand Poobah of Baseball Canada. This game, as part of a weeklong tour down here in Central Florida, teaches them what they need to do to take that next step into professional baseball and demystifies the pro ball experience to a large extent, as well.
The Junior Nats were overwhelmed in this game, though – an infield single by Victoria, B.C.’s Jason Willow to lead off the third was the only thing that prevented them from having a perfect game thrown at them. Guelph’s Scott Diamond threw the first two innings, picked up by Wade LeBlanc for two, then Tom Robson of Richmond, B.C. for three. Drayton Valley, Alta.’s Shane Dawson finished things up.
While the Junior Nats were soaking in the great experience, it was the young Canadians wearing Blue Jays blue who had the biggest days. Traditionally, the Blue Jays dip down into their minor-league system and call up every Canadian they can find to play in the annual game, and the 2016 affair saw quite a few homebrews step up.
On the pitching side, it was Robson and Dawson who stood out.
Robson, who started this very game for the Junior Nats back in 2011, had no mercy on his old squad. The tall righty showed that he’s well-recovered from Tommy John surgery with a quick and dirty nine outs, needing only four pitches to get through the fifth inning and not many more to finish the sixth and seventh.
Dawson was even harsher on the red and white. He gave up a rocket of a line drive to the first batter he faced, Clayton Keyes, but snatched it out of the air just as it zoomed past his head. Emboldened by his fine defensive (and face-preserving) grab, Dawson then struck out each of the next five batters he faced to finish the game.
Offensively, it was two young men from Toronto who stepped up, both with special connections.
Connor Panas, a ninth-round pick by the Blue Jays last year, got his first chance to perform in front of the big-league brass and made the most of it. The 23-year-old ripped an RBI double into the right-field corner in his first at-bat, drew a walk his second time up and belted a long home run to right in his third plate appearance of the day.
Panas, who went to Etobicoke Collegiate in Toronto where Jerry Howarth was his junior basketball coach and who played with Joe Siddall’s son Brett at Canisius College, drove in four runs and scored three on a 2-for-3 day, impressing the major league coaches for whom he was previously just a name on a list.
Burlington, Ont.’s Mattingly Romanin got a chance to show his stuff as well, and took full advantage by belting an RBI double of his own – a laser over the head of centre fielder Cooper Davis in the fifth inning. Romanin, who set several school records over an outstanding four years at Chicago State University, is the son of the Blue Jays’ manager of baseball information, Mal Romanin.
Both Panas and Romanin started last season in rookie ball, with Panas finishing up in low-A Vancouver, and both headed back to the Bobby Mattick Complex with smiles on their faces, having made a strong impression on the Blue Jays’ decision-makers.
Dawson and Robson both spent time at low-A Lansing last season, with Dawson getting called up to make five starts at high-A Dunedin, and both of them could make it very difficult for the Blue Jays to keep them out of New Hampshire this year.
In the day’s official Grapefruit League game, the rest of the Blue Jays lost to the Astros in Kissimmee, with Brad Penny giving up five runs in his two innings of work. Josh Thole had a big day at the plate, going 2-for-3 with a double and three RBIs.
The Blue Jays and Astros will renew hostilities on Friday afternoon – Jerry, Joe and I will have it for you across the Sportsnet Radio Network starting at 1:00 p.m. ET. Aaron Sanchez will try to keep his incredible spring going; he gets the start against Houston’s Doug Fister.