By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
AJAX, Ont. – Chris Leroux certainly won’t be running for mayor of Santo Domingo now.
If the 31-year-old right-hander decides to head back to the Dominican Republic for winter ball this off-season, something he’s done for several years with Toros del Este, he might want to hope his friends and fans missed his dominant start to open the Pan Am Games on Saturday, when Leroux kept their hitters from scoring for his six innings on the mound and struck out eight of them.
His familiarity with both specific players on the opposing side and with the style the players from the Dominican bring helped the Philadelphia Phillies farmhand cruise through his first start in two weeks and only his fourth since being traded from the Milwaukee Brewers organization, scattering six hits in Canada’s 4-1 win.
“My slider was good, and I’m just glad I didn’t walk anybody,” Leroux said. “Dominicans are always free swingers so I knew that if I threw my slider for strikes they’d be swinging at it. I mean I know half those guys. I played with [third baseman] Pedro Feliz, I played with [starter] Claudio Vargas, so it’s nothing new. I’ve played winter ball for five years, so I felt comfortable.”
That level of comfort may not extend back to the Dominican Republic after Leroux’s first Senior National Team performance since starting Canada’s World Baseball Classic matchup against Mexico two years ago.
“I’ve always got along with the Dominican guys; it’s almost like I’m Dominican,” Leroux said last season of his winter experience. “I don’t speak Spanish, but for some reason they love me, I love them, and they take me under their wing … it was all a learning experience [at first] but now I’m almost thinking I could be the mayor.”
Maybe instead he could try his campaign in Ajax, Ont., where his mother, father, brother, sister-in-law, and newborn nephew came to see him take the mound on Saturday, watching the Canadians take the first step in the right direction to defending the country’s Pan Am gold medal, won four years ago in Guadalajara, Mex.
“It means a lot to Baseball Canada that we go out and show everybody that we actually have talent,” Leroux said of playing on home soil. “I’m sure a lot of people don’t even know that we have baseball talent. So I was more anxious about that than anything else.”
Nerves were aplenty up and down the lineup for the home team in their first matchup at President’s Choice Ajax Pan Am Ballpark, but those should be out of the way by the time the next game rolls around Sunday afternoon, with Canada taking on Colombia in its second contest.
“There were some nerves early in the game, everybody wants to be the one who changes the game,” first baseman Jordan Lennerton (Langley, BC) said. “Once you settle in, you relax a little bit and do what you’re capable of doing.
“The fans were behind us early and we were just a little excited at first … It’s Game 1, it’s a big deal to play in front of your home fans. Everybody was jacked up. Getting that first win under our belts, getting in a good position that we want to be in, we can relax a little bit.”
On the same pitching staff as Vargas each off-season Leroux has played, the righty from Mississauga, Ont., has seen the same old song and dance from the veteran hurler before. With two outs in the sixth, Vargas had allowed just one hit to Canada, a first-inning triple for Pete Orr (Newmarket, Ont.), who came around to score on Tim Smith’s (Toronto, Ont.) sacrifice fly.
After going to the bullpen for southpaw Pedro De Los Santos with Orr on in the sixth, Smith singled and Lennerton was the one who changed the game, hitting a three-run home run to give the Canadians a four-run advantage. Andrew Albers (North Battleford, Sask.) allowed one run in two innings of work, and fellow Buffalo Bisons lefty Jeff Francis (North Delta, BC) secured the save.
“There’s no question, it’s always nice to get the first win,” Team Canada manager Ernie Whitt said. “Any win is nice. We only had four hits but we made the best out of it. Our pitching was outstanding. I can’t say enough about Leroux, Albers and Francis.
“It’s just the way it lined up and they shut them down. The Dominicans have a good team, they’ve got speed. We’ve got to keep them off the bases. I’m very pleased with it.”
Canada’s three pitchers on Saturday also happened to be the only three players who joined the team after its exhibition series at the USA Baseball Complex in Cary, NC, quickly getting acclimated over the two days before their opener and diving in headfirst to the international competition.
“I didn’t want to be selfish, but I felt like I was getting my work in while I was in Lehigh Valley,” Leroux said of joining the team on Thursday. “So it was an easy decision kind of, because I’m trying to get back to the big leagues and I’m pitching well and I don’t want to leave, but I know a lot of these guys so it’s easy. I’ve played with these guys since I was 16 years old, so it’s easy.”
All three hurlers threw to 23-year-old Texas Rangers prospect Kellin Deglan (Langley, BC) for the first time in a game situation – Francis competing in the red and white uniform for the first time in almost a decade – Leroux noting the job that the young backstop did behind the dish.
“It was good,” Leroux said. “I didn’t shake that much. I like to shake, period, just to mess up the hitters, so it might have looked like I was shaking a lot but I really wasn’t. He’s great back there and we worked well together. I miss [backup backstop] Chris Robinson (Dorchester, Ont.) because he’s been my catcher since we were little, but other than that it was great.”
Team Canada’s manager was happy to see success from both his more experienced and his younger players, and hopes it continues to build throughout the rest of the tournament.
“You have to have some veteran presence and we’ve got some veteran players here,” Whitt said. “We’re trying to mix in the veterans with the younger kids. I thought our catcher did a good job today, he blocked a lot of balls behind the plate and he hit the ball hard all night long, so he’s working in. Our left fielder [Tyler] O’Neill (Maple Ridge, BC), he’s working himself in, he got a base hit tonight. So we’re trying to work the younger kids in with our veterans.”