By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
AJAX, Ont. – Kellin Deglan is a game changer.
The 23-year-old backstop has always had the potential to be a difference-maker at the plate, and at many points in his career he has been. But with Team Canada at the Pan Am Games in Ajax, Ont., taking on the starting catching role for the first time with the Senior National Team, there is no way to overestimate the value he’s brought to the team behind the dish.
In his second appearance with the senior squad – with Team Canada as the third catcher in Regensburg, Germany in 2012 for the World Baseball Classic qualifier – Deglan joined a pitching staff with whom he has little familiarity, consisting of a wide mix of veterans and young hurlers, and he has quickly learned and adapted to all of them.
The native of Langley, BC has been defensively strong, smart with his pitch-calling, and incredibly successful in Canada’s four consecutive victories to start the international tournament.
“Deglan’s been tremendous behind the plate and he’s doing a great job of learning the staff in a very short amount of time,” said left-hander Andrew Albers, 29 (North Battleford, Sask.). “He hasn’t played with a lot of these guys for very long and he’s just been tremendous behind the plate. If you ask any of the starters that, or anyone who’s throwing to him, they’ll say the same thing. It’s pretty amazing what he’s done.”
The Canadians opened the Pan Am Games with a victory over the Dominican Republic, with Chris Leroux (Mississauga, Ont.) on the hill. The 31-year-old right-hander was one of three veteran hurlers Deglan didn’t even have an opportunity to meet during the pre-tournament round of exhibition games in North Carolina – along with Albers and Jeff Francis (North Delta, BC) – but it didn’t show.
“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 Chris Robinson (Dorchester, Ont.) because he’s been my catcher since we were little, but other than that it was great.”
Robinson is in his 13th appearance with the Baseball Canada program, his role this time as the team’s backup catcher. With his history, he has an extensive knowledge of the staff and has been able to lend a helping hand to Deglan as he passes the Team Canada torch on to the former first-round pick of the Texas Rangers.
“He’s been here, so he knows what to expect,” Robinson said. “Even [in Cary] he was catching Phillippe [Aumont] (Gatineau, Que.) and I’ve caught Phillippe a bunch, so I was able to bring that experience on Phillippe. That’s an exciting role, and that’s what I’m looking forward to in the role. It’s a little bit different now. It used to be me and Cole Armstrong (Surrey, BC), and we were jacked up and ready to play, and now Degs is the guy.
“Hopefully he has a great tournament because he’s a great player … He’s a good leader type who can control the game, which at that level in that type of tournament is what you need. He’s going to be a good choice for us.”
Deglan has enjoyed his second opportunity to work with the former big-league backstop – Robinson making his debut with the San Diego Padres two Septembers ago – and is continuing to learn every day with the Senior National Team.
“Robbie is a great catcher,” Deglan said. “He had a great career and he really slows the game down back there. We haven’t talked too much about catching and dissecting our catching, but just watching him and his presence and seeing him back there – I’m taking notes on everything and picking up little things. He does a good job of commanding respect on the field and working with the pitchers.”
In terms of Team Canada time, Deglan has much more experience than the Canadian team’s second starter of the tournament in Jared Mortensen (Abbotsford, BC). The 27-year-old righty had a solid national squad debut on Sunday to help the team to a win over Colombia, and he said he had Deglan to thank for it.
“He’s got a great mindset, great plan,” Mortensen said. “He sets up real well. He gives me a lot of pitches that shouldn’t be strikes, but the way he catches and receives and kind of shadows the umpire it makes for an easier day for me. He’s doing a fantastic job.”
Seven-year big-leaguer Shawn Hill (Georgetown, Ont.) took the mound for the Canadians on Tuesday against Cuba in the squad’s toughest matchup of the tournament so far, and shared the sentiment of his fellow staff members.
“I’ve only thrown to him a couple times now, and I enjoy him behind there,” the 34-year-old said. “He’s trying to get used to me. I only shook a couple times because things were going well and I was locating and all that kind of stuff, so there wasn’t a need…but as far as receiving, he’s very good. I’ve only thrown to him two times, so he’s trying to feel me out as far as what I do, and the same with all the other pitchers. But I do really like him back there.”
Feeling the intensity of defending Canada’s Pan Am gold medal from four years ago in Mexico and playing on home soil, Deglan always enjoys his time with the national team, and couldn’t be happier to have the experience.
“It feels great to be back playing with Team Canada,” he said. “It’s always special every time we get to represent Canada and our country, and I’m just honoured to be back here and enjoying playing with these guys again …
“I feel like I’m already on the same page with a lot of these pitchers and they’re making good pitches, they’re executing, and that’s why we’re having a lot of quick innings out there. I look forward to continuing to get to work with these guys. We’ve got some great arms on our team.”
Though Deglan is from the opposite side of the country to where the games are being played, he is happy to be at home north of the border, and for the opportunity to have his family supporting him. The only other time his parents Karin and Gary were able to see him in the red-and-white uniform was when he was at the world junior championships in Thunder Bay, Ont., in 2010 as an 18-year-old, and this is the first time his fiancée Ashley Engle has been able to see him suit up for Canada.
“It’s really special for me,” Deglan said. “I wouldn’t be in this place right now if it wasn’t for my parents. They put me in sports my whole life and they pushed me to become the baseball player I am today. So for them to see me playing for my country in the Pan Am Games, and for me to see them in the crowd is awesome.”
Every experience for Deglan has been a learning opportunity, and he is looking forward to taking everything he’s soaking in at the Games with him when he returns to his High Desert Mavericks team.
Heading into the season, the young catcher was coming off of an incredible winter in the Australian Baseball League with the Melbourne Aces, where he was named MVP of the team after hitting 16 home runs in his first 35 games to take the long ball crown and surpass all other players in the five-year history of the circuit. Deglan brought that success with him to the Mavericks and is hoping to do the same when the international event is over.
“It was big,” he said of Melbourne. “Going over there I got a lot more confidence, I broke the home run record which really gave me a lot more confidence too, because now I feel like I can do anything.
“I wish I had a better start to the season – I got off to a little bit of a slow start – but I’m starting to come around now and playing here with Team Canada at the Pan Am Games is only going to help me. And it’s a really nice break from the High-A team.
“You play every day, you see your teammates and coaches every single day, so coming here it’s almost like a break from baseball. Going back, this is probably going to rejuvenate me and help me to finish strong there.”
The highly competitive environment that is the Pan Am Games gives the Canadian players a little bit of a breather because of the family environment that Baseball Canada provides, making the experience unlike anything else.
“We’re just closer as a country than other countries,” Deglan said. “Canadians are a tight-knit group, and if we’re not playing with each other in the minor leagues, we’re all checking up on each other. The coaching staff does a great job of letting everybody play here, and I’m comfortable, and it’s just awesome anytime you can get together with this group and represent Canada.”