By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
TORONTO, Ont. – Andrew Albers has pitched in two gold medal games.
Team Canada has only ever played in a pair of them.
In the first, the native of North Battleford, Sask., got the start for the Canadian squad that he had just joined for the first time less than a month earlier, making his national team debut at the World Cup in Panama. There, the men representing the country north of the border captured bronze, matching the best-ever finish for Baseball Canada at the senior level.
Albers then took the mound in the red-and-white uniform against Team USA at the Pan Am Games in Mexico in the first gold medal game they’d ever played in. He threw 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball, helping the squad to a 2-1 win and the best finish in program history.
On Sunday, the 29-year-old southpaw came on in relief and held off the Americans once again, helping Canada to its second consecutive Pan Am gold medal finish.
“It’s a pretty neat feeling,” Albers said. “To be a part of a couple games like that is pretty special. Obviously the first one for me is a little closer to the heart, getting to start that one and getting to throw six innings in there. [Sunday], coming in in a big spot and being able to extend the game a little bit was pretty huge too. So it was a lot of fun, certainly something that you remember for a long time.”
The matchup was a little cleaner four years ago, Albers followed by Scott Richmond (North Vancouver BC) on the hill, the right-hander notching eight straight outs to end it. Jimmy Van Ostrand drove in two runs in the game, which was all Canada needed to come out on top.
In their 10-inning win on home soil at the Games in Ajax, Ont., Team USA had an early three-run advantage before Rene Tosoni (Port Coquitlam, BC) tied the game with one swing of the bat, a rare homer off of a lefty hurler for the right fielder. Canada went ahead in the fifth, but the American squad tied it up in the seventh and sent the game to extras.
With the extra-inning, international tiebreaker rule in effect, runners starting on first and second with none out, Team USA scored two in the top of the 10th. The Canadians failed to execute a bunt attempt to start their half of the inning, but Pete Orr (Newmarket, Ont.) singled to score one, leaving runners at first and second.
On an attempted pickoff of Orr at first, hurler David Huff’s throw sailed into right field, where outfielder Brian Bogusevic picked the ball up. Skyler Stromsmoe (Bow Island, Alta.) scored on the first overthrow before Bogusevic airmailed his toss over the third baseman’s head and allowed Orr to head for home. The next throw, to home, beat Canada’s third baseman to the plate, but catcher Tommy Murphy couldn’t hold onto the ball and all of a sudden the Canadians were back-to-back Pan Am champs.
“The first time around was a 2-1 ballgame, a pretty well-played ballgame, a couple runs early, and then Richmond came in and shut the door,” Albers said. “This time it was a little more interesting, a little more exciting probably for everybody, and we’ll take it.”
With the win, the Canadians went from being a consistent underdog to what some might now consider a favourite.
While the program has been building for years, behind Baseball Canada’s director of national teams, Greg Hamilton, the second straight gold medal for the squad might be just what it needed to garner a little more of the respect that it deserves.
“It’s huge,” Albers said. “You can get lucky once. It’s tough to get lucky twice in a row. So I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job for the last four or five years of going to these international tournaments and doing fairly well. Hopefully that’s something that can continue.
“Obviously that’s a huge kudos to Greg and what he’s done with the junior team, and you’re starting to see those guys filter in now. We had a lot of guys who were products of that junior team on this team this year, and you’re really going to start seeing that more and more as the years go on. With guys who have been through that program and continue to have success, it’s just going to get better.”
Of the seven players under the age of 25 who donned the maple leaf at the Pan Am Games, five had played for Hamilton on the Junior National Team previously. With all but one making their debut with the senior squad – Kellin Deglan (Langley, BC) joining Team Canada at the World Baseball Classic qualifier in Germany in 2012 – it can only mean good things for the program moving forward.
“Once you’ve done it once, and now that you’ve done it twice, you feel like you can do it again,” Albers said. “Certainly that’s a big thing. Obviously before four years ago we had never won a gold medal game.
“We had never even played in a gold medal game in a senior national tournament, so it was foreign territory. Now we’ve been there a couple times and certainly the experience is going to help. So it’s something that we’ve down now, something we know we can do, and you just try to build off that.”
With the international tournament taking place right in the middle of the season, it was mere hours before the squad dispersed and took off in separate directions to return back to the professional teams they came from. With a little bit of time to celebrate, the win definitely began to sink in right away, but there was no telling in that moment how much it could mean for Baseball Canada’s future.
“It’s certainly special,” Albers said. “As you go on through your season and as you get back, when you get some time to reflect, that’s when it will really sink in, everything that has happened here. Being able to repeat is something pretty special for us, as well as for the program and for Baseball Canada. So getting the chance to do that and managing to do it at home, it’s pretty tremendous.”
The left-hander will have at least two players to share the memories with during his time with the Buffalo Bisons, the Triple-A affiliate of the Blue Jays. Albers currently shares a clubhouse with Jeff Francis (North Delta, BC), the man who got the start in Canada’s most recent gold medal matchup, and the two will soon be joined by Phillippe Aumont (Gatineau, Que.), who threw the best game of his career against Puerto Rico at the Games and signed a minor-league deal with Toronto on Friday.
“I felt really good about our chances,” Albers said. “We’ve got a guy like Jeff on the mound who has been around and done everything that you can pretty much possibly do in the game, and you feel really good about your chances to win when a guy like him takes the mound.
“The only advice I had for him was to enjoy it, and I think he was able to do that. It was a special moment for him [and] he did a great job for us … He did a great job of shutting them out and giving us a chance.”
While the experience was different for a variety of reasons for the only guy to throw in both of Canada’s gold medal games, the most noticeable was having the support of the crowd behind the team as they tried to make history on home soil, and it couldn’t have been better.
“It’s so nice to have the fans out,” Albers said. “You hear the ‘Canada’ chants in the crowd and that gets you going and you feel really excited and you get to feel the energy. Then just knowing that you have family and friends being able to watch and be there at the game and things like that, I can’t say it makes you play harder because you’re playing your heart out anyways, but it’s nice knowing that they’re there.
“It’s just a lot of fun when things go right.”