It’s the game that still haunts Ernie Whitt.
Four years ago, Canada had hopes of advancing to the second round of the World Baseball Classic. The team had home-field advantage at Toronto’s Rogers Centre and were optimistic after losing a close game to the United States.
There was every reason to believe Canada would cruise past Italy – then the offence went cold.
“We knew that our pitching was going to be so-so, but we thought our offence would carry our club and we only scored two runs against Italy,” said Whitt, Canada’s longtime manager who was also with the team at the 2006 WBC.
Canada’s hopes of getting beyond the first round were dashed following the 6-2 loss to Italy.
“It was disappointing,” Whitt said during a recent interview. “I liked the way we played against the United States, I thought it was a very intense game, World Series-type game, fans getting into it, back and forth, back and forth.”
“You learn from your losses,” Whitt added. “I think I learned a little bit and so did our whole staff.”
Brett Lawrie remembers how difficult it was to watch Canada’s loss from the bench. The Toronto Blue Jays third baseman was just 19 in 2009 and only saw action as a pinch runner.
“I didn’t really want to go back to spring training real quick,” said Lawrie. “I wanted to stay with my boys and see how far we could take it. It was just unfortunate. But there’s always another one, so we’re fortunate enough that we all get to do it again and tomorrow’s a new day and we’re all excited to get this one started.”
The Italy loss will be weighing on Whitt and the rest of Canada ahead of the start to Pool D play. A rematch with the Italians is set for Friday in Scottsdale, Ariz., followed by Mexico at Chase Field in Phoenix on Saturday. Canada ends the first round against the powerhouse United States team, also in Phoenix, next Sunday.
“We have to win our first game. We have to win our second game. Those are our priorities at this time,” said Whitt. “Whatever it takes to do, that’s what we are going to do.”
Upsets are common at the international tournament. Canada had one of its own in ‘06, beating the U.S. 8-6. In 2009, the Netherlands stunned the Dominican Republic with two victories to move into the second round.
Whitt kept that in mind after the loss to Italy, pointing out Canada nearly fell to South Africa in ‘06. At some point, he said, Canada will win when no one expects them to.
“If you have a chance to play a team more than one game, chances are the better team’s going to come out,” said Whitt. “When it’s a one-game set, anything can happen.”
Canada heads into the WBC with a lineup that features established veterans, a bolstered bullpen and a few surprises. Among the major-leaguers, Minnesota Twins star Justin Morneau returns as well as Chicago White Sox reliever Jesse Crain and Lawrie.
Milwaukee Brewers closer John Axford is new to the team and should give Canada a capable option to finish games. Michael Saunders of the Seattle Mariners is also making his national team debut and will provide a stable presence in the outfield.
There are a few glaring holes in the lineup. Canada has no ace starting pitcher, shortstop is once again a weakness, and minor-leaguers Chris Robinson and John Suomi will platoon at catcher after veteran Russell Martin opted not to play in the tournament.
Canada will have to wait at least a couple more days to find out whether Cincinnati Reds slugger Joey Votto will join the team. Votto, a National League MVP in 2010, missed 48 games last season with a knee injury. He was Canada’s best hitter in ‘09, but has lingering concerns about his knee and won’t commit to the team until just prior to the first game against Italy.
Votto won’t have to go far if he joins Canada – his teammates are working out at the Reds’ spring training facility in Goodyear, Ariz..
Canada will play exhibition games against Milwaukee on Tuesday and Cincinnati on Wednesday.
Baseball Canada’s Greg Hamilton, the director of national teams and architect of Canada’s roster, said he is optimistic Votto will join the team. Losing the Toronto native would be a major blow to Canada’s offence, a point not lost on Whitt.
“That would hurt our lineup,” said Whitt. “Would that kill us? It would make things a little more difficult, but it gives an opportunity for someone else to come in and try to fill that spot.”
Lawrie likes the look of the roster as it is. With a resume that includes time on the Canadian junior team and the 2008 Olympic squad, Lawrie points out the squad has plenty of experience.
“I feel like we have a lot more guys now that have been through professional baseball,” said Lawrie. “It’s different because our pitching and what-not last time was a different boat. Now we have a lot of guys that have been around the game and that’s important because we understand what professional baseball is about and this tournament is about.”
Lawrie says the 2013 edition of Team Canada is “a little more special” than four years ago.
“If we can understand the game and know our limitations I feel like we’re going to be a lot better off,” he said.
Hamilton began the work of building Canada’s roster a year ago. He said it started by securing commitments from major-leaguers – Boston pitcher Ryan Dempster, Colorado pitcher Jeff Francis and Seattle outfielder Jason Bay are among the players who declined invites – then looking at depth charts to plug the holes.
Minor-leaguers Hamilton thinks can compete at the international level – such as outfielder Tyson Gillies and shortstop Cale Iorg – are given priority. Hamilton also benefited from Canada winning a gold medal against the U.S. at the Pan American Games in October 2011 as 10 players from that team are on the WBC roster.
The lineup tinkering won’t stop until Canada steps on the field Friday. Pitcher Jay Johnson and Suomi were both added to the team in the last month to replace injured pitcher Scott Richmond and Martin, respectively. If Votto pulls out, Hamilton said he will have a replacement ready.
Hamilton often speaks directly to players, but putting Canada’s team together also meant talks with agents and general managers who still are nervous about players competing at the WBC.
“I think there’s a difference between people being concerned and people having serious reservations on the viability of the event and whether or not it’s right,” said Hamilton. “I think at the end of the day if it’s ever going to get to become similar nature to the World Cup of soccer that eventually everybody will have to take a big sigh and say that we’re all in. Might not be comfortably in but we’ll be all in, and I don’t think the tournament is at that point now where everybody is all in.”
But Hamilton is in. So are Whitt and Lawrie, who want to move on from the embarrassment of 2009 and start the baseball season with games that matter.
“It’s going to be a great push,” said Lawrie. “Not only for myself, but I know for the rest of the guys on my team and a great push for the Blue Jays because it’s going to get Canada excited about baseball.”
Here’s a look at the teams in Pool D:
Record in 2009: 0-2
Canada is hoping to advance past the first round for the first time. A disappointing 6-2 loss to Italy knocked the team out of the ‘09 tournament at Rogers Centre in Toronto. Avenging that loss will be Canada’s first goal in Arizona.
“It stung. You never let those go easily,” Greg Hamilton, director of national teams for Baseball Canada, said of the Italy loss. “It’s something you reflect on, you look at, and as we move into this one everybody in the clubhouse brings a long memory of that one. We want to erase it and move forward.”
Major-leaguers Justin Morneau and Jesse Crain are among the returning veterans, although catcher Russell Martin is a notable absence after withdrawing from the team. Canada also features a bolstered bullpen with the addition of Milwaukee closer John Axford.
But the verdict is still out on whether Canada’s best hitter will join the team. Cincinnati’s Joey Votto remains on the fence after missing 48 games last season with a knee injury. He plans to make a decision prior to Canada’s first game. His participation will have a major impact Canada’s chances of advancing.
Record in 2009: 1-2
The victory against Canada is the only WBC win the underdog Italians have every enjoyed. With no star pitching or hitting, winning another game this time around will be an accomplishment.
But players like Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo and San Diego outfielder Chris Denorfia could cause trouble for Canada, especially in a close game.
“Do they have the big household names, the Joey Vottos and the Justin Morneaus? No they don’t. But they didn’t have it the last time around either and they also play to a certain degree with house money. They don’t have a whole lot to lose,” said Hamilton.
“They’re going to come and play hard and they’re not expected to beat us. Any time that’s a reality you really need to respect it even more than they do in the sense that you better be ready because they’re going to play you hard. They always have and they will this time.”
Record in 2009: 2-4
After opening the last WBC with an unexpected 17-7 loss to Australia, Mexico was eventually eliminated in the second round following a pair of losses to South Korea and Cuba.
This year’s team features 16 players in the major leagues, including several stars. Los Angeles Dodgers’ first baseman Adrian Gonzalez returns, closer Sergio Romo joins the team after winning the World Series with San Francisco last year and longtime national team outfielder Karim Garcia is back after recording three home runs and five RBIs in ‘09.
Mexico can also expect plenty of fan support in Phoenix given its close proximity to the Mexican border.
“They’re going to be tough. They always are,” said Hamilton. “Their pitching staff’s pretty solid, pretty deep. They’ve got some key bats in the right spots, and they’re going to have a lot of guys that just finished in the Caribbean Series. So they’re coming off a high intensity winter ball environment where they just literally finished up competing at a big stage internationally and with a lot of patriotic flavour to it. They’ll have an opportunity to carry it into this tournament.”
Record in 2009: 4-3, lost in semifinals
The United States enter the third WBC with something to prove. They were knocked out in the second round in 2006, and in lost in the 2009 semifinals to eventual champion Japan.
This time the Americans arrive with an intimidating lineup led by veteran manager Joe Torre. The U.S. squad looks like an all-star roster with Ryan Braun, Giancarlo Stanton, R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez and David Wright just some of the marquee names.
No team is invincible at the tournament – Canada stunned the U.S. with an 8-6 win at Chase Field in 2006, and pushed the Americans in a 6-5 loss in 2009 – but the U.S. will be disappointed with anything less than a championship now.
“You look at their lineup they’re good, they’re really good. From top to bottom they’re deep,” said Hamilton. “They’ve got balance where they need balance. They have a lineup that works well together in terms of that balance. They’re not missing anything really.”