PHOENIX – If you can believe it, Canada is ranked sixth in the world baseball rankings, well ahead of such baseball factories as the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. For reference, Canada is ranked fifth in the world hockey rankings.
That impressive ranking is mostly a result of some fine performances in world competition – a gold medal at the 2011 Pan Am Games and a bronze at the World Cup in 2011. But when Canada’s major-leaguers take the field together, success has been hard to come by. The Canadian team assembled for the 2013 World Baseball Classic has a chance to change that.
Canada opens the tournament on Friday against Italy in the third rendition of the (supposed to be) best-on-best tournament. Canada has yet to advance out of the first round of the event, finishing ninth in 2006 and 12th in 2009.
Twenty-four hours ago, the Canadian team would have been a favourite to finish second in Pool D (which includes Mexico and the U.S., along with Italy) and advance to the second round. But suddenly injuries, and earlier dropouts, have conspired against Team Canada. On Thursday, it was announced that Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie will miss the tournament due to a strained rib.
“It’s important for me to show my support because I still feel like part of the team,” said Lawrie, who was injured in Wednesday night’s exhibition game against the Cincinnati Reds. “But for the most part I will not be playing, and I don’t foresee myself in the tournament at all.”
The loss of Lawrie is a major blow for Canada. He was expected to help anchor the middle of the lineup along with two former MVPs, Justin Morneau and Joey Votto.
Votto himself may not be 100 per cent healthy. He had surgery to repair his knee last August and spent seven weeks on the disabled list. He returned for the 2012 playoffs and has been taking part in spring training, but he waited until Thursday to join the Canadian team. He is batting .389 with one home run this spring, but it will be interesting to see if Canada can use him to his full potential.
Of course, there’s also the Russell Martin saga that continues to hover over the team. Martin, the newly-signed Pittsburgh Pirates catcher, said he only wanted to suit up for Canada if he could play shortstop. When both the Pirates and Canada refused, he dropped out of the tournament, drawing the ire of teammates like Morneau and Lawrie.
The Canadian players insist they only want to focus on who is at the tournament. And the players in Phoenix this week may still be good enough to get them through to the next round. There’s Morneau, the 2006 American League MVP, who is playing in his third World Baseball Classic. Michael Saunders, an outfielder from Victoria, had a breakout season with the Seattle Mariners in 2012, hitting 19 home runs.
Taylor Green will take over for Lawrie at third base. He played in 58 games for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2012 hitting just .184, but he has some pedigree having hit .336 in the minors in 2011. Detroit Tigers farmhand Cale Iorg will play shortstop. He is the son of former Blue Jay Garth Iorg, and is suiting up for Canada for the first time. Team Canada veteran Pete Orr will play second base.
One potential unknown player who could have a breakthrough is outfielder Tyson Gillies. The Phillies prospect had a .299 batting average over three different levels of minor-league ball in 2012. Injury problems have slowed his march to the big leagues.
Canada will need a strong offensive performance, because its pitching is thin and lacks depth. With major-league starters like Ryan Dempster, Scott Diamond and Jeff Francis all missing the tournament due to injuries or professional commitments, Canada has put together a patchwork rotation.
Major-league journeyman Shawn Hill is expected to start Friday against Italy, followed by Pirates reliever Chris Leroux against Mexico, and likely 21-year-old Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon, the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, against the U.S. on Sunday.
The first round of the tournament uses a strict 65-pitch limit for starting pitchers, which could work in Canada’s favour as the bullpen is solid. It will be anchored by John Axford, the Brewers closer who has saved 81 games over the last two seasons. Another Brewers reliever, Jim Henderson will be in the ‘pen as will Phillies prospect Phillippe Aumont. Canada lost yet another established major leaguer when White Sox set-up man Jesse Crain went down with shoulder injury last week.
It all adds up to a lot of question marks for Canada. There aren’t many household names left on the roster, but there a couple bona fide stars and many players who have lots of international experience.
Without a doubt, Canada’s toughest competition will be the star-studded U.S. team. But that game isn’t until Sunday – and Canada’s fate could already be decided by the time they faceoff. Canada’s opening round game against Italy will be interesting for two reasons: Italy beat Canada on its home turf at the Rogers Centre in 2009 and Canada surely wants revenge; and because Italy stunned Mexico for a 6-5 win on Thursday. Mexico was supposed to be the other contender for second place in the group, but after playing the U.S. on Friday night, could already be 0-2 by the time it faces Canada on Saturday.
If Canada is to break its WBC curse, it will need at least one win in one of the first two games. Two early wins would likely wrap-up a berth in the second round, and serve notice Canada is worthy of that high world ranking.