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Toronto Blue Jays Brett Lawrie gathers his gear after finishing play in the fifth inning of their MLB baseball spring training game against the Tampa Bay Rays in Dunedin, Florida March 1, 2013. (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)
Toronto Blue Jays Brett Lawrie gathers his gear after finishing play in the fifth inning of their MLB baseball spring training game against the Tampa Bay Rays in Dunedin, Florida March 1, 2013. (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)

Baseball

Jays quietly frustrated at losing players to World Baseball Classic Add to ...

The Toronto Blue Jays can’t say publicly that they wish Brett Lawrie or J.P. Arencibia would follow Russell Martin’s lead and pull himself out of the World Baseball Classic. But they do, just as they’d rather Jose Reyes stay in camp, because the fact of the matter is the WBC could not come at a worse time for this franchise.

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On a day in which Lawrie, a native of Langley, B.C., shredded Martin for pulling out of Team Canada because he wouldn’t be allowed to play shortstop in the WBC – Lawrie said it was “weak,” the Blue Jays beat the Philadelphia Phillies 11-6 at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium and swallowed hard - facing up to not having Lawrie, Arencibia, R.A. Dickey, Reyes and Edwin Encarnacion for up to three weeks depending on how far their teams advance.

Pitch counts are in effect – 65 for first-round games, 80 for second and 95 for third-round games – but there are no effort limits. This is not good, because we are at the stage of spring training where only bad things can happen to players or pitchers.

It will be that way to Opening Day; the threat of muscles and ligaments pulling or popping or bones breaking. It’s the case for any team, let alone one like the Blue Jays which has blown up its payroll in an attempt to win it all in 2013. And now this – the WBC.

Instead of the usual monotony of meaningless games that are little more than glorified batting practice and bullpen sessions, games where the players and  managers actually pay attention to the scoreboard.

Arencibia and Dickey will leave camp on Sunday for Team USA’s training camp; Lawrie will leave for Team Canada’s camp – both in Arizona; and Jose Reyes and Edwin Encarnacion will join the Dominican Republic’s camp in St. Petersburg.

Dickey tuned up for the WBC on Saturday by throwing 32 strikes in 43 pitches through three innings, then throwing another 14 in the bullpen. He pronounced himself ready for the U.S.’s opener against Mexico on March 8, and then dropped a nugget that answers at least one  of the Blue Jays concerns: while there is doubt who will be Dickey’s personal catcher during the regular season (manager John Gibbons says Dickey has told him he wants one; Dickey said he doesn’t care but is pleased he will have input in the decision,) Dickey fully expects Arencibia to catch him in the WBC.

The Blue Jays privately had been wondering what the point was to having Arencibia join the team if all he was going to do was catch Dickey in the bullpen or on the side.

“I anticipate him [Arencibia] catching me, and I’m pretty sure that’s [U.S. manager] Joe Torre’s thinking,” said Dickey. “I don’t want to speak for him or put words in his mouth. He knows we’ve been working hard together and I’m sure in that first game he wants me to feel comfortable. Throwing [Joe] Mauer or [Jonathan] Lucroy in there, having not had any experience with me, doesn’t seem the smartest decision, but that’s up to him.”

Team USA hasn’t always seemed to take this competition seriously, which is why it hasn’t gained as much traction in the U.S. as had been originally anticipated. The commissioner’s office has been all in from the start but the individual clubs have adopted a more benign approach, realizing there is more risk than reward.

So players routinely pull out, citing injuries or job stature with their particular team. Martin’s case was odd, in that he was just signed to a multi-year contract by the Pittsburgh Pirates and is a catcher yet somehow thought he’d be allowed to play shortstop for Canada. Martin is a converted infielder who sometimes takes ground balls at shortstop and has spoken about wanting to eventually make the move to save wear and tear on his knees. But the Pirates wouldn’t allow it in the WBC and neither would Canadian general manager Greg Hamilton – who said that WBC officials wouldn’t allow it, anyhow, because it is precisely the type of precedent that might give teams and excuse to prevent players from going.

Speaking on Sportsnet 590/The Fan before Saturday’s game, Lawrie, the Blue Jays third baseman, criticized Martin, a native of East York, Ont.

"It's different for pitchers because they always have to amp things up and Ryan's a little bit older, so he has to get his arm ready a little bit earlier and that could be tough for an older guy,” Lawrie said. “But in his [Martin’s] case, it's a little bit different just because the ultimatum was there that if he wasn't going to be able to play shortstop, he wasn't going to come, and in my mind that's not right, that's weak.

”I'm out there going 100 miles an hour, any position. I don't care if I'm pitching, I'm playing centre-field or I'm catching, it doesn't matter. Just as long as I get an opportunity to help my teammates, help my country and these are things that don't come around very often. This is every four years; this isn't an opportunity that just comes around every spring training.”

The Blue Jays WBC contingent has been locked in almost since the start of camp. Reyes has put on a show at shortstop – his arm is remarkable – and slugged a three-run home run Saturday and a noticeably more relaxed Lawrie has made solid contact since the start of camp.

Dickey has been handling the vagaries of the knuckleball pitcher but has been particularly pleased with his ability to throw the pitch for strikes. He’s ready for some serious competition, he thinks. “Because I felt good out there and because my body felt good I know I can step on the gas a little bit … and it will be OK,” Dickey said.

There’s too much at stake for it to be anything but OK. As manager John Gibbons said Saturday: “We hope they all get knocked out in the first round.”

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