‘Pretty surreal’: Skirrow shines as Canada bounces back with win over Colombia

Otto Lopez crushed a three-run homer and Noah Skirrow pitched five scoreless innings with five strikeouts as Canada blanked Colombia in their WBC group-stage matchup to inch closer to the knockout rounds, winning 5-0.

PHOENIX – During conversations ahead of the 2020 college season, several teams told Noah Skirrow that he was projected to be picked between the fourth and sixth rounds of the draft that summer. He’d had a couple of good seasons at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., plus a solid summer in the Cape Cod League, with a few more months to further up his stock.

Then came COVID, the draft’s reduction to five rounds and chaos. “The sixth round didn’t exist, so that made it a little tough,” quipped the right-hander from Stoney Creek, Ont. “I was quite literally the definition of on the bubble.”

No one picked Skirrow, but more than 20 teams came for him immediately after, resulting in a deal with the Philadelphia Phillies and a development path that brought him here, facing the minimum number of batters over five dominant innings for Canada in a 5-0 win over Colombia at the World Baseball Classic.

Bo Naylor delivered an RBI single in the fourth inning, after catching Oscar Mercado stealing at second to end the third, Owen Caissie added an RBI single in the eighth, Otto Lopez broke things open with a three-run homer in the ninth and the Canadians retained control over their fate.

At 2-1, a victory in Wednesday’s finale against Mexico, when Rob Zastryzny starts against Jose Urquidy, sends them into the Classic’s quarter-finals for the first time. Mexico was 1-1 heading into Tuesday night’s clash with Great Britain (1-2), while Colombia (1-2) has one game remaining against the United States (2-1).

Multiple scenarios remain in play, but Canada avoids all the potential tiebreaking algebra by taking care of its own business. Thanks to the efficiency of Skirrow, Curtis Taylor, Trevor Brigden and Scott Mathieson, as well as Lopez’s blast that kept closer Matt Brash available for Mexico, they’re positioned about as well as they can be.

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“We’re set, we still have some good arms out there,” said manager Ernie Whitt, who was full of praise for Skirrow and Co. The 12-1, mercy-rule loss to the United States “was just us playing to try to save the arms for the last two games. And hopefully, Rob will give us a good start (Wednesday). In this tournament, the first round, a lot of it falls on your bullpen.

“We have some arms that will be ready.”

One bat that won’t be ready is Freddie Freeman, who tweaked his hamstring on a swing during his second at-bat and left the game in the fourth. He underwent testing, and while Canada awaits word on his status from the medical staff and the Los Angeles Dodgers, the star first baseman won’t be available against Mexico.

“The most important thing is his health,” said Whitt.

Under tournament rules, Freeman can’t be replaced on the roster until the next round, should the Canadians get there. If they do, they’ll surely check in with the Cleveland Guardians and Josh Naylor to see if the slugger is confident enough in his ankle to DH in the quarter-finals.

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Full credit to Skirrow for putting Canada in position to get there.

He got Harold Ramirez on a grounder to second to start the game, walked Gio Urshela, then induced a 5-4-3 double-play ball by Jorge Alfaro to end the first and kept rolling from there. He struck out four of his next six batters, erased a Ramirez leadoff single in the fourth with another Alfaro double-play ball and got three cans of corn to right in the fifth to end his outing.

All of it took 58 pitches, seven shy of the opening-round limit of 65.

In the leadup to the outing, Skirrow described the opportunity to pitch such a meaningful game “as pretty surreal, it’s something I wanted to do for a long time,” having not played for the junior national team coming up. Afterwards, the 24-year-old who touched triple-A last year said, “I couldn’t have asked for much more, really. It went about as good as you could ask for it to go. Just trying to be as aggressive as I could and give us a chance to win and give us as much length as possible.”

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Working mostly off his fastball and slider, Skirrow did exactly that, exploiting a Colombian lineup that didn’t vary its approach much during the game, something the Canadians noticed during Great Britain’s 7-5 win over the South Americans on Monday.

“We didn’t make the adjustment of crowding the plate on him a little bit,” said Colombia manager Jolbert Cabrera. “He was throwing a lot of fastballs, cutters and sliders, everything breaking away. We didn’t make the adjustments necessary to connect with the ball better.”

Still, the Colombian pitchers kept their team there, with Naylor’s two-out single off Reds lefty Reiver Sanmartin the only damage until the eighth when Caissie’s two-out knock cashed in a Lopez triple.

“It’s a really good game to that point,” said Naylor. “The offence was just chipping away, continuing to put as much pressure as we could and the end you kind of saw it.”

Taylor, whose 1.1 innings of work in the 18-8 rout of Great Britain helped settle the Canadian staff, took over from Skirrow and he retired six of the seven batters he faced.

Rays prospect, Brigden, sliced through the Colombians in a two-strikeout eighth before Mathieson worked around a pair of singles to open the inning to lock things down.

“I always love playing for Team Canada because it’s a winning experience,” said Brigden. “We’re trying to win every ball game and you’re trying to do everything you can for the next guy, for your teammates. Having Skirrow go out there and throw five for us was incredible, saving the bullpen. Going out there and getting a quick one, two, three for the boys and getting back in was good.”

So, too, is the way they’ve given themselves a chance Wednesday in a tournament in which they went from mercy-ruling the Brits and getting mercy-ruled by the Americans to playing a crisp, all-around game against the Colombians, each outing a brand new one.

“We go out and we play the game the right way,” said Whitt. “Believe me, we have just as much passion as any other country. The biggest thing for us is that we may not be the favourites but we will play like we are the favourites.”

They’ll need that and more against a powerful Mexican team standing between them and a spot among the Classic’s final eight.

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