By Bob Elliott
AJAX _ The gauntlet was thrown down before the first pitch.
After the pre-game niceties of player introductions and anthems, as managers and umpires went over the ground rules at home plate, Puerto Rico coach Carlos Baerga was off on a stealth mission.
Baerga, the former Cleveland Indians infielder, headed half way to the mound and planted a red, white and blue Puerto Rico flag on a one-foot stick.
Fans from Puerto Rico cheered.
And as the cheers died, Stubby Clapp ambled out of the third base dugout, one part Robert Duvall, one part Tommy Lee Jones as if entering a saloon at high noon,
What did he think when he saw the flag in front of the mound?
“Not in my country,” said Clapp after Canada scored a 7-1 win over Puerto Rico to set up a rematch from four years ago between Canada and USA for the gold Sunday night at President’s Choice Park. Either Shawn Hill or Jeff Francis will start for Canada. CBC will stream the game live.
Not in Clapp’s world would another flag adorn the mound before Phillippe Aumont set foot on it.
“I didn’t do anything, the guys did everything,” Clapp would say, after the win.
He certainly set the tone: snapping the stick in half, glaring into the Puerto Rico dugout, putting the flag in his back pocket and walking off to cheers.
Clapp, a coach at double-A New Hampshire, still has the passion.
The snap of the stick wasn’t the only loud crack as Canada rode the snap, crackle and pop of its lineup to a return match in the gold medal game.
We saw a World Baseball Classic match-up between Korea and Japan where a Korean player flung a six-foot spear into the mound attached with a Korean flag. The benches almost emptied.
“Maybe you do that in your own country, not in our country,” said pitching coach Denis Boucher, whose star pupil Aumont dazzled with eight scoreless innings throwing 103 pitches.
This was international baseball with its passion and urgency on display ratchet up beyond the level of say Game 93 of the regular season.
“That’s the last thing you’d want to do is come in here and fire us up,” said Ernie Whitt about the flag plant.
Left-handed hitting Jordan Lennerton hit a 3-2 pitch from lefty Miguel Martinez for a two-run homer to centre in the first.
Pete Orr, who said the Canada dugout remained “level-headed” through the planting and unplanting, hit a two-run, two-out, single to score Kellin Deglan, who had singled, and Tyson Gilles, who had walked in the second for the 4-0 bulge.
Right-handed hitting Brock Kjeldgaard hit a two-run homer to right in the third to put Canada up 6-0.
And left-handed hitting Gilles hit the first pitch he saw from lefty reliever Luis Gonzalez over the right field fence for a 7-0 lead and sprinted around the bases as he usually does when he goes deep.
Before the pitch, Whitt had argued that Gonzalez should not be allowed to pitch since his name was not on the lineup card. The technical committee ruled it is only a courtesy to have the player’s name on the lineup card.
With his second pitch, Gonzalez plunked Skyler Stromsoe.
It’s a good thing Clapp took care of business because Larry Walker might have stomped on the flag and headed for the dugout looking to snap a player or two in half ... until he ran into coach Carlos Delgado.
“We put the right man in charge of the situation,” said Whitt.
Clapp said later Baerga’s gesture didn’t bring back memories of the 1991 Gold Bat tournament in Sarnia, when a player from Puerto Rico and Clapp, playing third base for the Windsor Selects, collided.
“That was interesting, it must have been -- I was pitching,” Clapp said. “I hit one of their guys with a curve ball and innings later there was a rundown between second and third. The guy tried to level me, I stood my ground.”
A fight broke out. Another team from Puerto Rico waiting to play the next game was soon on the field making for a number of 2-on-1 battles.
“I doubt if any of those guys who were in Sarnia were in that dugout,” said Clapp.
Aumont retired the first 12 in order before Anthony Garcia singled to left leading off the fifth. Edgardo Baez also singled before Aumont struck out the next two hitters and recorded the final out on a fly ball to centre.
“He might have had not allowed a hit but he really didn’t get into a good groove with his curve ball until the fifth,” said Boucher, looking at the pitching chart. “Look at that 0-2, 0-2, first pitch strike, six straight hitters without throwing a ball.
Aumont had runners on the corners with two out in the eighth when Whitt make a mound visit. He let Aumont stay and he fanned Dickie Joe Thon on a breaking ball and Thon beat Kellin Deglan’s throw to first. Bases loaded.
Aumont then struck out Gabriel Robles and pumped his fist like when he escaped the bases loaded, none-out jam
against Team USA in the 2009 WBC at the Rogers Centre.
When he reached the foul line he hugged Deglan.
Aumont’s night was done: eight scoreless innings as he allowed three singles, one walk and struck out eight. His longest outing this season was seven scoreless innings against Columbus in May.
Brock Dykxhoorn took over for Aumont, allowed two hits and then gave up a two-out single to Roberto Pena,
The gauntlet had been thrown down ... the flag had been planted.
Not for long.
Not in Ajax.
Not in Durham Region.
Not in Stubby Clapp’s Canada.