By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
AJAX, Ont. – The Pan Am Games this time around are an entirely different experience for Andrew Albers.
Four years ago, the left-handed hurler was joining Team Canada for the first time in his career. His was a 25-year-old rookie starter on a team with a lot of experienced arms and seasoned hitters.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Albers became a pleasant surprise to many when he helped the Canadian squad to bronze at the World Cup with 15 scoreless innings, and then earned the win in the gold-medal matchup at the Pan Ams in Mexico, the first gold in Senior National Team history.
“He was incredible,” second baseman Skyler Stromsmoe (Bow Island, Alta.) said. “Every time he went out there you knew what you were going to get from him. Just his pace and throwing strikes, it’s easy to play behind.”
Now, the native of North Battleford, Sask., is embracing a new role on a staff with “a lot of tremendous veterans” and trying to help fill in some of the gaps with the newcomers.
“I had never played on the senior team, I had never played on the junior team or any national team for that matter,” Albers said. “It’s one of those things where it’s really up to the other guys to try to make guys feel welcome, to try to make sure that they fit in and that they feel like they’re a big part of the team. We have the guys on this roster to do that. It’s just about going out and playing baseball and hopefully getting off to a good start and building a little confidence and from there you can take off.
“Fortunately for me four years ago that’s kind of what happened. I got off to a little bit of a good start in the World Cup and was just able to build momentum from there. The other thing, conversely, if you get off to a bad start it’s about finding a way to get out of it real quick and make sure that it doesn’t affect you for the entire tournament. It’s a balancing act, but as long as you feel like you’re part of the club and as long as guys make you feel welcome you should be alright.”
Canada couldn’t have hoped for much of a better start to the Games this time around. The defending champions have notched five consecutive victories against Dominican Republic, Colombia, Nicaragua, Cuba and Puerto Rico in front of the home crowd in Ajax, Ont., and have already secured a berth in the semi-final and medal rounds on Saturday and Sunday.
They just have to keep it going.
“Obviously the team is feeling good right now,” Albers said. “The thing that I keep being reminded of though is [number of] wins doesn’t matter. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish the tournament. If we go out and we lose the first playoff game, these wins don’t really mean that much.
“So there’s still a lot of work to be done and everybody knows that. We’re going to enjoy these wins and hopefully we can build on this momentum and keep it going.”
Currently with the Toronto Blue Jays organization, Albers – and Team Canada closer Jeff Francis (North Delta, BC) – temporarily left the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons to join the national squad at the Games. Both players had been hoping to suit up in the red-and-white uniform since the opportunity arose, but being able to do so also means that they are not in the big leagues, a bittersweet feeling.
“I’m definitely excited,” Albers said. “Any chance that you get to go play in an international tournament it’s a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to it. Obviously I wish the circumstances were a little bit different, but at the same time you’ve got to take what’s given to you …
“I was certainly excited to have that conversation with Greg [Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams], going back and forth with him to make sure that whatever happened, if there was a chance that I could play that everything would be set for me to get down there.”
Albers spent exactly one day in the majors this season, earning a spot in Toronto’s bullpen after a stellar start to the season with the Bisons. The southpaw made the trip to Cleveland from Buffalo in the morning, came in against the Indians that night, and after allowing a home run to the first batter he faced, threw 2 2/3 scoreless innings and was sent back to Triple-A.
He remained on the 40-man roster until just a couple of weeks before the international tournament was set to begin, making him ineligible to play. When the Blue Jays outrighted Albers, a phone call to Hamilton was high on his priority list.
“That’s not the first thing that goes through your mind when you’re taken off the 40-man but it’s something that came soon afterward,” the 29-year-old said. “It was to the point where I had a conversation with Greg the next day about what it would take to possibly get [here] and get on the roster.
“Things were still fine that way and he had submitted a preliminary roster and he had included me on it so we were good. Then it was about getting it cleared with the Blue Jays and making sure they were on board with allowing me to play. Fortunately for me they didn’t have any qualms about it…so I’m excited about the opportunity.”
Albers has made two appearances with Team Canada so far in a setup role, coming in to preserve a four-run lead against Dominican Republic and then with a three-run advantage against Cuba. In both outings, he gave up a solo home run to the first batter he faced before settling in for two innings of scoreless baseball.
“Apparently I need to learn how to get that first guy out, or keep him in the ballpark,” Albers said. “But it is what it is and you have a few runs to play with, so you want to be really aggressive. Unfortunately I missed my spot a couple times and guys made me pay for it. But the nice thing about having that three or four-run lead is you’re able to go in and you’re able to get away with that.
“It’s all about being aggressive and making sure that you make them beat you and that you don’t beat yourself. Luckily the stats don’t matter. It’s all about winning and we’re 5-0 and everybody’s feeling pretty good about it.”
Playing on home soil in a mid-season playoff atmosphere with the family that Baseball Canada has become for Albers has been an enjoyable experience, and an incredibly simple transition.
“Luckily I’ve gotten the chance to play with a lot of these guys before,” he said. “There are a lot of great guys on this team and they make it pretty easy for guys to come in and feel comfortable, and then it’s been a lot of fun. We’ve got a great group of guys again this year and it’s been a lot of fun competing with them. So really getting acclimated with them is not a problem. It’s been pretty easy so far.”
With a wave of young players joining the Senior National Team for the first time, sharing a similar experience to the one that Albers had four years ago in Panama and Mexico, the lefty has been incredibly impressed with the squad’s newcomers, and especially the group of young players brought in for the tournament.
“Our young guys have been great,” Albers said. “[Kellin] Deglan (Langley, BC) has been tremendous behind the plate and he’s doing a great job of learning the staff in a very short amount of time. 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.
“Every young guy who has come in and thrown has been tremendous out of the bullpen, and obviously you have [20-year-old Tyler] O’Neill (Maple Ridge, BC) with a couple huge knocks in this tournament, so everybody is doing a great job and that’s exactly what we needed, the young guys to come in and step up, and everybody’s answered the call so far so hopefully we can continue to do that and continue to move this in the right direction.”
With one game against USA remaining before the semi-finals on Saturday, there is still plenty of baseball remaining for the men’s squad. With another gold medal in their sights, Albers has no doubt the team will do whatever it takes to get to the top of the podium.
“The one thing you can expect, and it’s something you can expect every time, is these guys are going to go out and play hard,” he said. “Those guys are all there for a reason and everyone takes pride in getting to put that country across their chest. If nothing else happens, I know guys are going to go out there and give it a really good effort. You’re going to see that in the way that we play and whether things turn out positively or not, it’s not going to impact the effort level.
“Certainly having played with a few of these guys in the past, you know they’re going to do whatever they can to help the ball club win. It becomes unselfish very quickly. Guys don’t care about their numbers in tournaments like [this]. Guys don’t care about anything but getting that W and it’s whatever you have to do.”