PHOENIX – Canada may have found its newest baseball folk hero on Saturday, the new Stubby Clapp, if you will. Even before he was partially responsible for causing a massive brawl, catcher Chris Robinson was winning the hearts and minds of Canadians.
And if there was any doubt that the World Baseball Classic doesn’t matter to the teams or players, those doubts vanished in the top of the ninth inning of Saturday’s game between Canada and Mexico.
With Canada leading a must-win game 9-3, Robinson bunted down the third-base line for a single. As soon as Mexico third baseman Luis Cruz picked up the ball, he motioned to pitcher Arnold Leon to hit the next batter.
Rene Tosoni came to bat for Canada. Leon threw two pitches near him before finally plunking him in the back.
Then chaos ensued.
Tosoni made a move toward the mound which prompted both dugouts and bullpens to empty, prompting an all-out brawl.
This was no ordinary baseball brawl. Several punches were thrown, and landed. Several players were wrestled to the ground forcefully. There was fighting in the stands at Chase Field. Water bottles and baseballs were thrown at the Canadian team.
When the dust settled, six players were ejected and the WBC had its signature moment. And Canada had a signature win over a baseball power that assured it would live to fight another day. Canada plays the United States on Sunday with the winner advancing to the second round.
“I feel terrible about the fact that I’m the guy that got my teammate hit,” Robinson said. “It’s scary. In a hockey fight, two guys drop the gloves and look at each other and fight. With this, you don’t know what’s on anybody else’s mind, as Justin [Morneau] said, you have to keep your head on a swivel. No one likes them but it’s something that’s part of the game, like a hockey fight. It’s not something we were looking for.”
Whether or not it’s actually good for the sport or the event is up for debate. In a postgame interview, Robinson used the word “unfortunate” six times to describe the scene. Moments later, pitcher Chris Leroux said it was “fun.”
Robinson was asked whether he broke “the code” when he bunted in the ninth with such a big lead.
“I'll answer that,” Canada manager Ernie Whitt interjected. “In this tournament it's – you play baseball like it's 0 0. That's the unfortunate thing. What happened tonight is because of the rulings that they have. Regular baseball, during the season, you would never see that happening.”
Whitt was referring to the WBC rule that makes run differential a crucial tie-breaker in deciding which teams advance to the next round.
[Slideshow: See the brawl between Canada and Mexico]
“Because of the run differential that they have, you play it like an 0 0 game the whole time. I mean, they stole a base in the eighth inning. They're down six or seven runs. Why do you do it? I mean, it's unfortunate what happened. It happened. They need to take a look at that,” Whitt said.
Robinson was at the centre of almost everything in this game. He was 2-for-3 with an RBI, and while there were bigger offensive stars – Morneau and Michael Saunders each had four hits and three RBIs – he was the talk of social media long before the brawl.
In the fourth inning, Mexico’s Karim Garcia led off the inning with a single. Edgar Gonzalez followed with another hit. Then with Humberto Cota batting, a wild pitch hit Robinson in the groin area.
Robinson was hurt and stayed down for a minute but stayed in the game – that’s the Canadian Way, as they say.
On the very next pitch Cota singled to centre. Garcia tried to score from second but outfielder Tyson Gillies threw a strike to Robinson at home. Garcia and Robinson violently collided at the plate, but Robinson held onto the ball. Garcia was called out.
“That's kind of our MO: We want to play the game hard. We play it properly,” said Robinson, who earlier slid hard into second base to try to break up a double play.
“That's the way I've always played,” Robinson said. “The play at the plate, that's baseball. People disagree with it, but it’s our job – I signed up to catch knowing that, and it’s just unfortunate that it was the pitch after getting hit in the balls.”
Robinson was lauded on Twitter for his gritty, hard-nosed, ‘Canadian’ style of play. First-base coach Larry Walker agreed and singled him out for his play. (And said a lot of other things).
“Right from the beginning, I saw Robby was into it,” Walker said. “His base hit in the first inning, he was waving his arms, getting everybody fired up. Then he got drilled in the nuts.
“Then a collision at home. Then the bunt. Then the fight. It was a pretty intense game for him.”
Robinson, a Baltimore Orioles farm-hand from London, Ont., is a veteran of international baseball for Canada. He was part of the Canadian team that went to Germany in September and won a qualifying tournament to get into the WBC. He’s also, arguably, only starting behind the plate because Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star catcher Russell Martin refused to join the team when he wasn’t allowed to play shortstop.
After Friday’s embarrassing loss to Italy, the tight-knit Canadian team needed a sparkplug in this must-win game against Mexico. Robinson proved to be it.
“We’ve always been a Team Canada, you always say how close teams are and it’s clichéd but we really do have a close group of guys. Some of my best friends are in that room,” Robinson said. “We’ve always been that gritty kind of [team], to use a hockey term, with the sandpaper and that brings us together no matter what – whether we’re brawling or playing baseball.”
Lost in the excitement of the brawl was that Canada put together an impressive 10-3 win over a tough team under difficult circumstances.
Canada jumped out to a 4-0 lead after one inning, a nice cushion for starter Leroux. Leroux gave up a run in the bottom of the first but shut down Mexico the rest of the way. He hit his 65-pitch limit after the third inning and finished with an impressive line of two hits, one unearned run, one walk and four strikeouts.
Unlike Friday’s debacle against Italy, Canada’s bullpen was solid. Andrew Albers followed Leroux by going three innings giving up two runs and striking out three. Blue Jays prospect Trystan Magnuson followed with two impressive shutout innings and John Axford finished off the ninth after the dust settled on the brawl.
Regardless of what happened in Saturday night’s game between the U.S. and Italy, Canada was in control of its own destiny. Win against the U.S. and move on to the next round. Simple as that.
And Canada showed it won’t be an easy out. There’s lots of fight left in this team.
“It’s unfortunate [the brawl], but we’ll put it behind us and maybe we’ll make ‘Hockey Night in Canada’,” Robinson said. “And we’ll go after them tomorrow.”