By: Alexis Brudnicki
AJAX, Ont. – It’s the game the way it should be played.
For Phillippe Aumont, the opportunity to represent Team Canada is a chance to play the sport he loves in a way that he can find himself enjoying it on a daily basis.
Just over two weeks ago, the 26-year-old right-hander wasn’t sure he was in the right head space to join the squad at the Pan Am Games. He’d had a tough day at the office, being designated for assignment by the Philadelphia Phillies after a single day and a forgettable start in the big leagues, and Aumont asked for his release from the organization.
Earlier in the season, while with the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs, he had jumped at the chance to be on the roster for the Games and to defend Canada’s gold medal on home soil in Ajax, Ont., but after that, the native of Gatineau, Que., wasn’t sure if he wanted to play anymore.
“It was a question,” Aumont said. “I didn’t know. I wanted to make sure – I didn’t want to come here and just not be all in. I talked with Greg [Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams] and Greg’s always been a great part of my career and he’s always been there for me.
“He kind of boosted me up and gave me some of the answers I might have been looking for to make it definite that I was coming here, and I don’t regret that decision. It’s always a good time, so I’m excited to be here and I’m excited to compete.”
The righty took the mound for his first competitive start in 17 days on Monday, earning the Senior National Team’s third straight win of the tournament with five shutout innings against Nicaragua, allowing just three hits and two walks – one to the first batter he faced – and striking out eight.
“[It was] pretty good, [had] first inning jitters a little bit,” Aumont said. “It’s competition, so this is where it counts, so it was actually fun once I settled down and felt better. The key was just to keep attacking those guys and just keep my defence into it. Overall I felt good.”
He felt good and he was having fun at the ballpark. That hasn’t always been the case for Aumont, who often finds himself answering to his harshest critic – himself. He sets the bar high and can at times find himself deep in the pressure cooker he’s created.
“It’s just mental blockage,” he said. “I go out there and sometimes I expect way more out of myself than anybody else in the stadium is expecting out of me. I’ve always been that way and sometimes it doesn’t do me any good. It does me more harm than anything else.
“I’ve just got to make sure I work on that and [stay] sound in my head when I go out and compete, and just have fun. Sometimes I take it maybe too much to heart.”
The former first-round pick – taken 11th overall by the Seattle Mariners in 2007 – isn’t sure what the difference is between finding great success in the minors and translating it to the big leagues, but he would certainly like to figure it out. Of his eight seasons in the minor leagues, Aumont has been called up in each of the last four years, getting a firsthand look at the business side of baseball and realizing just how difficult it is to stick in the majors.
“Once you start going up and down to the big leagues and back to Triple-A, up and down all the time, it’s hard,” the 6’7”, 240-pound hurler said. “But it’s harder to hear that, ‘You’ve got it all,’ or, ‘We’re pulling for you,’ when you’re just struggling and you’re playing that ‘Four-A’ ball. You’re good enough for Triple-A, you’re just struggling to stay up there [in the big leagues].
“Sometimes that’s hard to accept. Sometimes you’ve just got to look at yourself in the mirror and accept that there’s still some stuff you’ve got to work on, even though you’ve got what it takes to be there on an everyday basis. That’s just part of it, so I’ve got to keep grinding I guess.”
Aumont has tried “a bunch of stuff” to help him with his mental game, working to block out many of the outside factors that affect him on the mound, but it’s tough because his issues aren’t consistent. Focusing on having fun, the righty is also using his time with Team Canada to elicit advice and experience from some of the other guys on the squad who have seen, done, and been through it all.
“I’m just going to try to pick some brains here and there and try to get better,” Aumont said. “We’ve got some veteran guys so it’s always good to pick a little bit and see their perspective on some of the aspects.”
There was no doubt that Aumont looked incredibly comfortable in Monday night’s matchup, but playing north of the border and wearing the red-and-white uniform is a completely different beast than throwing anywhere else.
There’s plenty of pressure in international play when there is no tomorrow or yesterday, and all that matters is the game at hand, but there is a distinctive feel of ease when suiting up with a group of likeminded individuals all aiming for the same end goal.
“We’re so used to playing in other pro ball, or indy ball for some of these guys,” Aumont said. “Being from Canada we’re kind of outnumbered on some of those teams. So when we can have a whole team of just Canadians, we all have the same mentality when we’re there and it’s always fun. We always come together quickly and we always have a good time.”