By: Alexis Brudnicki
AJAX, Ont. – This is only the beginning.
The Canadian Women’s National Team got their start at the Pan Am Games on Monday, and they made their debut in a multi-sport event in a big way, taking down Cuba 13-1 for their first victory of the tournament.
Anxiously awaiting the moment they would finally get to step on the field, each of the 18 players named to the national squad in May and then taking a 10-day trip across two provinces to play exhibition matchups right before they arrived in Ajax, Ont., for the Games, in the end it was everything they had hoped for.
“It’s been great,” shortstop Bradi Wall (Swift Current, Sask.) said. “We came up to the [Athletes’] Village on Wednesday and then got to watch the men play a couple times, we got to practice, and then finally today was the day that we got to play and got to showcase ourselves. We had a good start, a good game, so we can’t expect anything more than this.”
But the truth is, it could continue to get better. Team Canada scored one in the third inning against the Cuban squad, and added one in the fourth, but held only the two-run lead until they broke out in the final two frames for the rest of their runs. They were never worried, but the end was indicative of more of what they expect.
“When we play Cuba we know…they’re going to make mistakes,” Canadian manager Andre Lachance said. “We’ve seen them before, and there’s always an inning where we’re going to score a little bit more runs, and that happened again tonight. There was no panic, even though we started a bit shaky.”
Vanessa Riopel (Repentigny, Que.) got the start for Team Canada, and while she felt privileged to take the hill to open the tournament, the right-hander didn’t think she was at her best, despite throwing five shutout innings and allowing just two hits, walking two, hitting one batter, and striking out two. She is confident, however, that after learning from the experience she will be even better next time out.
“It was historic for women’s baseball, so it was an honour that Andre asked me to throw the first pitch, but I think I can do better,” Riopel said. “I wasn’t nervous, and I like to be nervous, so I’m going to try to set up my warmup and everything correctly for the next outing. But it was fantastic, and a good start, 13-1, it’s crazy.”
Often used in high-stakes situations and against top-calibre competition, the 25-year-old hurler thrives under pressure. As the event unfolds, it would be no surprise to see her match up against Team USA when the women take on their biggest rival on Friday, depending on how earlier games shake out, and it would also be no shock to see Riopel rise to the occasion.
“It’s more stressful to play against the USA or Venezuela is good too, or Japan, but I think I will be better the next time I will pitch,” she said. “It was fine, but I need more pressure to be better. I feel like my pulse wasn’t high enough, so I wanted to go run and do something to stress me, but it’s okay because my team was there.
“And it’s a good thing they helped me because I threw a lot of balls and I’m not used to throwing that many balls. So I’ll thank my teammates a lot before going to bed.”
The Canadian women aren’t taking any team lightly, but having the bats break out in a big way late in the game on Monday was a welcome confidence booster for the fourth-ranked team in the world.
“Every team is going to be tough,” Wall said. “As you can see, we didn’t come out swinging at the beginning of the game. It was a 2-0 game for the longest time. We had that one eight-run inning [in the sixth] and that’s what we needed.
“But we know that we have to hit from inning No. 1 with the tougher teams coming up. [Against] every single team, we have to play our best and know that we can hit from inning one all the way up to inning seven.”
After watching Baseball Canada’s Senior National Team win their second consecutive Pan Am Games gold medal on Sunday night, the women were happy to get their tournament underway, looking for the same fate. With one game under their belts, they’re ready to go to work.
“I told the girls earlier, ‘If you need a motivational speech to start Game 1 after watching the men last night, there is something wrong,’” Lachance said. “We didn’t need to say anything before this game. We were all ready to go. The nerves were out.”
Added Wall: “We had a great win today and we will celebrate that tonight. But we will bounce right back and focus on the game tomorrow.”