TORONTO – Last year, Ryan Dempster started throwing a baseball again and to his great surprise it didn’t hurt. So the native of Gibsons, B.C., who hadn’t been on a pitching mound since striking out Matt Adams to end Game 1 of 2013 World Series, kept on playing catch, eventually convincing himself to get back up on the bump. With fellow Chicago Cubs special assistant Ted Lilly looking on and bullpen catcher Corey Miller behind the plate, Dempster threw a 60-pitch side at a high school in Three Springs, Calif., just outside Sequoia National Park, and awaited the verdict when he woke up the next day. "I was expecting to not be able to raise my hand above my head," he recalls. "But my arm felt great, so I just kept playing catch here and there before ramping it up."
The steady progress since has made Dempster, 39, an unexpected addition to Canada’s roster for the upcoming World Baseball Classic, a team that will also include 2003 National League Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne making a similar comeback. The 41-year-old from Mascouche, Que., last pitched in the big-leagues in 2008 but at least has some more recent game experience, having thrown five innings of two-hit, one-run ball for the Ottawa Champions of the Can-Am League in September.
With starters James Paxton and Jameson Taillon turning down invites to pitch in the March tournament, Baseball Canada needs the two veterans to be more than just a feel-good story. Dempster is under consideration for a start if he continues to trend right, while Gagne could be an important piece in a bullpen that will include John Axford, Jim Henderson, Adam Loewen, Dustin Molleken and Scott Mathieson and has the potential to shorten games. "If you look at what we’ve put together pitching-wise," says Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams, "our strength is going to be basically from the fourth inning on because I think we’re going to be able to go right-left pretty well, we’re going to have some experience and we have some back-end guys we’ll be able to piggyback to get home."
Scott Richmond, Andrew Albers and Chris Leroux are also among those being considered for Canada’s opener March 9 against the Dominican Republic in Miami, along with Dempster. "I was putting up some really good numbers in beer-league softball," he quips.
Pitching in the World Baseball Classic isn’t going to be a springboard to a bigger comeback for Dempster, who is enjoying the freedom to be a father way too much to surrender it. But for any athlete who enjoys the type of career he did, the competitive juices often need an outlet and he’d love to share the experience with his son Brady, now 10. "If everything keeps trending this way and going the way it’s going, I’m all in and excited," he says. "I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think I can get guys out and help us win."
On Friday in Chicago, before flying into Toronto for Baseball Canada’s annual awards banquet, Dempster faced hitters for the first time since helping the Boston Red Sox knock off the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2013 World Series. He was encouraged. "That was a big test," he explains. "They were young kids, but it was good just to get a hitter in there and see that you can locate the ball and off-speed pitches are working well."
The next steps include travelling down to Arizona ahead of spring training and facing professional hitters, where he’ll get a better sense of how his stuff is playing. Dempster, a two-time all-star, is under no illusion that he’ll have the same low to mid 90s stuff that helped him succeed as both a starter and a closer over 16 big-league seasons. But now about 2½ months into a regimented throwing program, the ball continues to come out of his hand better and better.
"When I started throwing a lot, instead of feeling fatigued or feeling my age, I was actually feeling stronger. It was like, ‘Oh, the ball is carrying more, there’s more zip on it,’" Dempster says. "Hopefully I gain a little bit of velocity, but location is what it’s all about. Look at Kyle Hendricks. You don’t need to throw hard, you need to throw it in the right spot. I’ve been able to do that so far."
There’s more wisdom he can apply on the mound now, too, and he isn’t planning on pitching the same way he did earlier during his career. "To me, the breaking ball isn’t as important," he says. "My split is a very successful pitch and I looked at the end of my career and the times I did get hurt in big situations, I found more often than not it was my slider than my split. As you get older, it’s hard to have that hard breaking 88 mile an hour slider. I didn’t have that anymore. So it’s throwing more sinker/cutter and then split versus relying on that slider. Use it sporadically when you need it, but ultimately it just comes down to commanding the fastball. You can make 89-90 look like 95 if you’re able to change speeds and locate."
The pitching staff isn’t the only area where Canada won’t have its very best. First baseman Joey Votto pulled out late last month, saying in a statement "there were some aspects of my performance in 2016 that I have decided were lacking. I would like to use 2017 spring training for preparation." Brett Lawrie is also unavailable.
Votto’s absence opened up a spot for Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, who will be honouring his Canadian mother by playing for the national team. Pete Orr will play second in Lawrie’s absence, with Jamie Romak at third base and Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin fulfilling a childhood dream at shortstop. "I don’t really care what people think," he says. "I’m going to go out there and show what I can do to the best of my ability, period."
George Kottaras and Kellin Deglan will handle the catching with an outfield of Seattle Mariners prospect Tyler O’Neill, Dalton Pompey and Michael Saunders, provided there are no complications with the team that signs him. A return to the Blue Jays, dialogue continues between the sides, would make the decision "a no-brainer," he says. "If I get back with the Blue Jays, Canada’s team, being Canadian, it’s just a perfect fit."
Justin Morneau, who’s played in all three World Baseball Classics so far, remains unsigned like Saunders but is intent on serving as a designated hitter/first baseman. Canada’s bench will include Rene Tosoni, Jonathan Malo and San Diego Padres prospect Josh Naylor.
"We gave Dempster a pretty hard time when he didn’t join us when we played in ’09," says Morneau. "It’s unfortunate that we don’t have the depth that some of the other countries have so that when we miss a guy like that it really affects us. To be able to add these guys in and they get to be a part of it and see how fun it is, see how close-knit the group is, and you get to represent your country, to do that, I think they’ll have more fun than they probably think going in. I plan on being part of it, so we’ll see what happens."
To borrow from soccer, Canada finds itself in a group of death for this Classic. After the opener against the powerhouse Dominican Republic, dates with Colombia and the United States follow, with the top two teams in the group advancing. The national team has never made it out of the first round, a 9-4 loss to the Americans in a do-or-die finale knocking them out in 2013.
A new wrinkle this time around allows teams to create a 10-man provisional pitching staff from which two players can be subbed in from after each round. The rule clearly favours the United States, which has the deepest well of talent to pull from, and is obviously designed to help the Americans advance in order to increase interest in the tournament. "If you’re managing the U.S. club it’s a dream come true," says Hamilton. "Basically, you can call Clayton Kershaw and say, ‘Hey, stay on cycle and if we can get to Dodger Stadium you throw the gold-medal game.’ They can call Madison Bumgarner and say, ‘If we get to Petco, you can throw the game out there.’ They can just flip them in and out every round, they have that kind of depth. They don’t even miss any spring training."
Even if the Canadians had the depth needed to make that an option, Hamilton doesn’t like the idea.
"That’s tough in your clubhouse. I’m going to go and reach out to someone and say we’d love for you to be on the team but after the first round you’re going to home and he’s coming in, and after that he’s going home and you’re coming in," he says, adding later: "We’re successful as a national program because we build a team, guys commit and they want to be all-in. I don’t think we’re going to be successful if we’re flying guys in and out."
Anything, of course, is possible. At the inaugural Classic in 2006, the Canadians beat the United States 8-6 in what remains one of the national team’s top highlights. Three years later in 2009, the Canadians were knocked out of the tournament in Toronto by Italy, and lost to the Europeans again in the 2013 event. A springtime international tournament featuring a rapid succession of high-stake, one-off games is a breeding ground for the unexpected, something Dempster, suiting up for Canada for the first time since his junior team days in 1994, both represents and is looking to make happen.
"At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what your roster is, who’s on it, how people think you should or shouldn’t win – it comes down to out-executing the other ball club," he says. "We’ve got the guys on this team that are capable of doing that. Having some veteran guys that breed that and in those situations preach that, younger guys can watch and learn, if for nothing else for their own future. And for the future of the program, I think it’s a really cool thing."