By Bob Elliott
AJAX _ There was a time when Chris Leroux was the best high school catcher in Ontario.
He threw out runners trying to steal against Ron Gotwalt’s Mississauga North Tigers.
Graduating to Team Ontario and coach Jason Chee-Aloy, he impressed pro scouts enough to be selected in the ninth round of the 2002 draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
That summer he caught for Greg Hamilton and the Canadian Junior National Team at the 2002 Worlds in Sherbrooke, Que. as the best catcher in the country.
He chose to attend school and catch for the Winthrop University Eagles.
In Leroux’s sophomore year he went to the mound, as catchers normally do, when coach Joe Hudak approached for a mound visit late in the game and said “take the gear off ... you’re in.”
Leroux had thrown a few bullpens, but suddenly presto chango: he was the closer.
The former catcher has pitched at Yankee Stadium, Busch Stadium, Wrigley Field and almost in all of the cathedrals wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates, Florida Marlins and the New York Yankees uniform.
Wearing a black top with red and white CANADA lettering, Leroux stood on a mound which was a youth soccer field a few years ago before a crowd of roughly 4,000 Thursday night.
He was facing Puerto Rico, the top hitting team in the Pan Am Games tournament based on runs scored, doubles, homers and OPS.
And Leroux did give up a homer to Jeffrey Dominguez ... in the fourth inning, after he had put three zeros on the board and his teammates had given him a 5-0 lead.
That was it, that was all.
Canada beat Puerto Rico 11-6 as Leroux helped Canada move to 5-0 and clinch first place in the cross over games on Saturday. The Friday Canada-USA game is meaningless to Canada, but the silver medal winners from four years ago, Team USA, has to win or they fail to advance already having lost to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Jared Mortensen will start for Canada.
Working six superb innings Leroux allowed a homer and two singles leaving with a 9-1 lead. He walked two and fanned seven. In the opener, he pitched six scoreless in the Game 1 win over the Dominican. So in two wins he has pitched 13 innings allowing one run and fanned 15.
“All those years catching were wasted,” said Leroux, “being 6-foot-5 in high school, I probably could have hit 94 mph if I had worked at it ... I might have made some money.”
After that second year at Winthrop he pitched on Cape Cod for the Falmouth Commodores. When the highly respected Baseball America released its top list of prospects, Leroux was listed ahead of Jacoby Ellsbury. That was a memorable moment for Mississauga school teacher Keith Leroux, Chris’s father. The Florida Marlins drafted Leroux in the seventh round.
“That guy started as a catcher, their starter? No way,” said Hall of Famer Robbie Alomar, “he was impressive, he threw a lot of strikes with real good sink.”
Leroux said he would be available to pitch Sunday -- if needed.
“This is good for baseball in Canada,” said Leroux of Canada’s first-place finish and an appearance in Saturday night’s semi-final. “I was anxious pitching here at first, being from here. We’ve got a pretty good staff: Phillippe Aumont probably has a 10-year career ahead of him if he can get his mind right, Shawn Hill has pitched in the majors and Mortensen should be there soon.”
He also said “if Tyler O’Neill is not the next big thing ... well I don’t know. I’m not scout but I played with Mike (Giancarlo) Stanton with the Marlins. I haven’t seen bad speed and power like Tyler’s in two or three years.”
He also had high praise for his C Kellin Deglan (Langley, BC) saying “I only shake him off for the sake of shaking (for the hitter’s benefit).” And he predicted a big-league future for Deglan.
Leroux struck out the final hitter of the second inning and stared into the Puerto Rico dugout.
"Carlos Delgado and Alomar were yelling 'we know what you're throwing," said Leroux, just as Alomar walked by and gave him a hug.
In game: Anthony Garcia hit a three-run homer off Kyle Lotzkar in the eighth making the score respectable ... Tyson Gillies homered to right and sprinted the bases to make it 9-1 ... A Tyler O’Neill bomb to left and a Gillies double in the fifth made it 6-1 ... Brock Kjeldgaard hit a three-run, two-out homer to right field to put the Canucks up 5-0 in the third ... Two-out singles by Rene Tosoni and Kjeldgaard put Canada on the board in the first ... Kjeldgaard arrived via bus but he could have driven home in a 4-by-4. The DH was 4-for-4 with four RBIs. O’Neill and Gillies each had two hits ... Lefty Evan Rutckyj took over for Leroux and pitched a scoreless seventh ... Second baseman Skyler Stromsmoe made a sliding back handed stop to start a 4-6-3 double play behind Jasvir Rakkar in the ninth.
Canadian vignettes: When P.A. announcer Alan Roach read off the latest up-to-date medal standings catcher Kellin Deglan could been seen clapping -- hand in catcher’s mitt -- after his throw to second before the sixth ... Stubby Clapp went nine innings coaching third, while his children -- Cooper, Cannan and Crosbie -- almost went a complete game with energetically cheering “Go Canada Go” ... non stop.
Not a Pan Am event: A Dominican Republic fan tossed a beer can at the first base plate ump Jonathan Oko of Canada during Wednesday’s 9-5 loss to Cuba. Plate ump Jeff Macias of the US had ejected Dominican manager Denio Gonzalez for arguing balls and strikes in the first.
Faces in the crowd: Baseball Canada Ray Carter arrived from the west coast ... Former Blue Jays travelling secretary John (Rude Dawg) Brioux was in the seats ... Mike Kelly, who coached by Jeff Francis and Justin Morneau with the North Delta Blue Jays, was on hand dispensing wisdom.
Briefly: Team USA manager Jim Tracy had a long debate with the umpires after the Dominicans pulled a successful hidden ball trick with a runner at second down 2-1 in the second inning while the pitcher was standing on the mound as the Dominican rallied to beat Team USA 6-4 ... Second baseman Dickie Joe Thon, the leading hitter in the tourney with a .563 mark (9-for-20) coming into the game was hitless against Leroux with two strikeouts and a fly ball. Thon is on loan from the Jays where he is hitting .199 with seven doubles, three triples and 10 RBIs with a .554 OPS at class-A Dunedin ... Jays Hall of Famer Robbie Alomar was in blue and white coaching for Puerto Rico Thursday night.
Final thought: Now that I’m back from Cary, N.C. and Cincinnati I’m looking forward to seeing all the games and highlights on TV. What’s that? Not on? Only Cuba bought the baseball rights? This is a job for Donald S. Cherry.