By: Alexis Brudnicki
AJAX, Ont. – Autumn Mills could feel it.
The right-hander got her start with the Canadian Women’s National Team program as a 16-year-old over 10 years ago, and since the moment she found out that it might be possible for the women’s game to be a part of a multi-sport event, Mills wanted to be a part of something special, knowing she could be a contributor.
Before taking the hill on Tuesday night against Venezuela and notching Team Canada’s second consecutive victory at the Pan Am Games in Ajax, Ont., Mills knew she and her team were on top of their game, never more motivated than they have been as their sport takes centre stage right in their home country.
“We’ve been working to get here for 10 years now,” Mills said. “I’ve been a part of this program for 10 years and I’ve definitely played in front of bigger crowds, but for me this was one of the most important games I’ve ever played in. It’s our debut, it’s my debut, and I knew from the second I got here today I felt really well, and I knew we were going to win.”
The right-hander from London, Ont., turned in six strong innings in the 9-3 win over the Venezuelans, allowing just four hits and two runs, neither of them earned, hitting two batters and striking out three. As evident as her determination was heading into the matchup, she brought it straight to the field.
“Autumn Mills – there’s only one name,” Canadian manager Andre Lachance said of the key to his team’s win on Tuesday. “That was probably the best performance I’ve seen of her over the last couple of years. She was just dominating. When you control the pitching or the defence, you’re going to win most of the games, but today was all about Autumn.”
Turning 27 on Friday, the righty who now lives in Burlington, Ont., was happy to have her family and friends out to the ballpark to see her take the hill in person. While many of them are aware that she plays baseball, it was the first time for some to see her in the red-and-white uniform, and performing at the game’s highest level.
“I had a handful of friends here today that have never seen me play,” Mills said. “It’s cool because everyone knows that Tuesdays and Wednesdays, ‘Autumn’s busy because she’s going to baseball,’ but they’ve never actually seen a game. So it’s nice for them to get out here and show their support. That was fun.”
The opportunity to play at the Games has been different for the national squad than anything they’ve ever experienced before. They’ve never had the chance to share quarters with other athletes who have dedicated their entire lives to their sports, or to cheer on other athletes, or to mingle with the other competitors.
“It’s funny in a way, to see these people whose profession is literally their sport,” Mills said. “Meanwhile, I’m running back and forth to work and trying to make a game.
“It’s ironic, but it’s an unbelievable atmosphere at the [Athletes’] Village with the experience, and just seeing the athletes. Whether it’s baseball or track and field or anything, seeing their dedication is admirable and it just makes you want to be better.”
Each of Team Canada’s 18 Pan Am competitors have full-time obligations outside of baseball and have to make time to fit in the game. Mills has one of the most erratic schedules among the group, as a police officer in the Greater Toronto Area – where no one was allowed to request time off during the crazy time that is the Pan Am competition – but is so grateful that she and her employer have been able to make it work so she could be a part of the historic event.
“No doubt,” she said. “I mean, work has been supportive of it, however I’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices – such as sleep – to be here and make sure I’m ready to perform. It’s been a tough balance, but it’s definitely worth it.”
Having competed in five World Cups for Canada, making her mark on the international stage for over a decade, Mills had to figure out a way to shake some of the jitters she found herself with before her pitching debut at the Pan Am Games on Tuesday, after coming into Monday’s game as a pinch runner.
“I had some butterflies, for sure,” she said. “I took a lot of time today mentally preparing for this game. I watched [Venezuela’s] batting practice, I was trying to pick up different strategies that each hitter uses so I knew how to pitch to them, and I spent a lot of time on my own visualizing.
“I tried to do everything I could to calm those nerves. As soon as I got into the bullpen and I was feeling the ball roll off my fingers, I knew it was going to be alright.”
Before the righty even took the mound in the bottom of the opening frame, as the visitors against Venezuela, her squad had given her a cushy five-run lead, so if Mills still had any butterflies left, they quickly dissipated.
“That’s the best thing you could ask for as a pitcher,” she said. “Knowing we have five runs on the board to work with definitely helped ease the nerves and gave me a lot of confidence to go out there with.”
The feeling of assuredness is mutual between Mills and the rest of her team. They know what they’ll get every time she takes the hill, and have that same feeling that she had before the matchup, every single time.
“Let’s do the math,” first baseman and backup catcher Jen Gilroy (Mississauga, Ont.) said. “I’ve been catching Autumn maybe eight or nine years now. Autumn’s a stud, Autumn’s an ace. I mean I grew up on stories of Autumn Mills and Ash Stevenson (Mississauga, Ont.) and Kate Psota (Burlington, Ont.) being the titans of women’s baseball. She’s a stud.
“I see her at her best and that’s what you can expect from Autumn Mills. I’m not sure if it’s her No. 1 game because you see her No. 1 game every single time she goes to the mound, so it’s hard to say. But she’s an absolute ace, and playing defence behind her, it’s just comforting knowing that she’s out there throwing.”