By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
There’s a lot more to Shane Dawson than that meets the eye.
At sea level, the 21-year-old southpaw can be brilliant on the mound, just like he was on Friday night at the Pan Am Games against Team USA, throwing 5 1/3 innings of scoreless relief, allowing just two hits and striking out three.
“Their left-hander did a terrific job when he replaced [starter Jared] Mortensen (Abbotsford, BC),” American manager Jim Tracy said. “He did an absolutely terrific job. We were stymied. We got nothing off of him.”
Dawson has done much of the same all year long with the Lansing Lugnuts, the Class-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, and for the three-and-a-half seasons he’s played professionally since he was drafted out of Lethbridge Community College in 2012 after playing at Prairie Baseball Academy.
When he left Lansing to make his debut with Team Canada, the Drayton Valley, Alta., native led the minors with 11 wins, to go with his 3.05 ERA over 16 games and 88 2/3 innings, with 22 walks and 81 strikeouts.
“It’s been really good,” Dawson said. “[The Lugnuts] have a group of really good guys. We have 25 leaders on that team and that makes it easy when any day, anyone can step up and be a hero. So it’s been easy on me. All I’ve got to do is go out there and compete. If I’m struggling, they pick me up, and if they’re struggling, I pick them up. That’s just how it’s been all year.”
Below the surface, the young left-hander has to put in twice the work to keep up with those around him – playing without the infraspinatus muscle in his throwing shoulder and pretty much doing constant rehabilitation exercises to keep it strengthened – and he works even harder than that because he doesn’t want to just keep up. Dawson wants to stay ahead, and he does.
Staying on top in the literal sense on Friday, the hurler was ahead in almost every single count against each of the batters Team USA sent to the plate against him. The former hockey player’s plan was to simply go in and be a strike-thrower, and the American hitters fell completely flat against him.
“Competitiveness in the zone, for me, was key,” Dawson said. “Not throwing too many balls, being competitive around the strike zone. I felt like they were kind of in attack mode the whole time, and that kind of plays to my advantage.”
Team Canada’s staff has been led by veteran arms throughout the round-robin portion of the tournament in Ajax, Ont., with starters including Chris Leroux (Mississauga, Ont.), Phillippe Aumont (Gatineau, Que.), and Shawn Hill (Georgetown, Ont.) all with big-league time, and Dawson’s fellow Blue Jays farmhands and experienced lefties Andrew Albers (North Battleford, Sask.) and Jeff Francis (North Delta, BC) setting up and closing out games for the Canadians.
“Coming in, I felt like I had to be a little bit more mature with how I carry myself on and off the field,” Dawson said. “Especially with the personnel we have, the guys who have played in the big leagues and know how to act in these types of situations. So I’m really just kind of staying quiet and watching how they hold themselves …
“These games are a good gauge of what I’ve got to do to compete at this level, and I watch how they handle themselves on the field and what type of [pitch] sequencing and stuff they do. This is a great learning experience for me, being around these guys.”
Not only has the vast experience of the pitching staff from north of the border been a huge help to Dawson, but he has also had the opportunity to work with Team Canada mainstay Chris Robinson (Dorchester, Ont.), who was behind the dish for Friday night’s matchup.
“Robbie is probably the best catcher I’ve ever thrown to,” Dawson said. “Just for knowing the game, receiving the ball, and just being able to keep the pitching staff calm. I feel like he did wonders for me, keeping me calm and keeping me in the strike zone tonight.”
The backstop was equally impressed with the other half of his battery.
“I loved how he went after guys,” Robinson said. “We had a great rhythm going. I loved his compete [level], and he was able to keep hitters off balance by throwing four pitches for strikes in any count. It was a very impressive outing and the type of outing that helps you win games in tournaments like this. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get it going for him.”
Dawson came into the game with his squad trailing 4-1, the same score the night ended with. He not only kept the game within reach for Team Canada, but he also saved the rest of the bullpen for the semi-final round of play Saturday, and the medal matchup on Sunday.
“It felt good to be able to pitch in a game that meant something,” he said. “And it meant something to the other guys. All I tried to do was go out there and keep us in the game, so we could eventually get something going. But luck wasn’t on our side tonight, and we’re still going to be confident coming into the games tomorrow and Sunday.”
The matchup also meant something to Dawson’s mother Debi, father Shane Sr., grandfather Jim, and sister Jade, who have been in attendance since the Games began and hardly ever get to see him play up close and in person.
Not only are time and expense among the many issues preventing them from being at the ballpark more, but Dawson’s 16-year-old sister Sydney has Smith-Magenis syndrome – sharing the symptoms of several difficult conditions all in one – and has always needed constant care. It is difficult to both leave Sydney and to travel with her, so one of the best moments in her brother’s career previously was a start he had in Vancouver when some of his family – her included – made it for a game.
Though she couldn’t make it to Ajax for Pan Am play, Dawson is happy to have any of his relatives in attendance.
“I hadn’t seen my dad since February, I hadn’t seen my grandpa since October, or my sister [Jade] since February,” Dawson said. “So it’s good to see everybody, even though I don’t really have that much time to hang out with them. Just their presence is much appreciated.”
Donning the Team Canada jersey for the first time, playing in front of his family, and finding success all around, there’s not much that could be going better for Dawson right now.
“It’s been a blessing,” Dawson said. “I’m really just trying to take everything in and just have fun with it … It means everything [to be in the red-and-white uniform]. This is my first time, so I’m really excited to be a part of this. But it’s just like any other game – you’ve got to go out there and win; it doesn’t matter what jersey you’re wearing – but there’s a little more sense of pride when playing for this team.”