By: Alexis Brudnicki
From Team Canada to Canada’s team.
Before winning a gold medal at the Pan Am Games with Baseball Canada, Phillippe Aumont had received calls from the Blue Jays. Toronto was among the list of suitors hoping to have a chance at signing the 26-year-old right-hander after he had asked for his release from the Phillies, the organization he’d been with for the last six seasons.
At that time, Aumont wasn’t even sure if he wanted to keep playing.
He had lost his love for the game, and the native of Gatineau, Que., didn’t even know if he was in the right head space to represent his country at the international tournament. After talking to Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams, Aumont joined the rest of the squad from north of the border and went all in, helping to defend his country’s Pan Am Games championship from four years ago, and winning his first gold medal in the process.
“That was the biggest sense of pride and honour I’ve had,” Aumont said. “Obviously it’s the first time I won a gold medal. I won a bronze medal with the juniors [in Cuba in 2006] and that certainly felt great, but winning a gold medal – you’re a champion. Canada is a two-time winner. We’ve defended the gold medal. For the next four years we’re going to be champion…When I was coming up, if Canada was in the medal rounds, it was something big. We were getting there.
“Now we are there.”
When the tournament ended, the 6-foot-7 righty returned home to Quebec and wondered what his next move might be. After a couple of days, it became clear that the Blue Jays organization would be the best fit for Aumont, and on Friday he made it official when he signed a minor-league contract with the club, before he reports to the Buffalo Bisons on Monday in Syracuse.
“For me, taking that opportunity was probably the best,” he said. “It’s not every Canadian who gets a chance to go play for Toronto. Now I have that chance and they’re giving me that opportunity. I was pretty happy about it, even though I didn’t know if I was going to keep playing or not for the rest of the season.
“But obviously I had a blast for two weeks with Team Canada, we had fun, and coming back home for the last couple days it was kind of whatever. I would wake up and wonder, and [I thought] well, it’s time for me to go back. I’ve got to keep playing.”
Aumont’s mindset changed in a big way throughout the short period of time he spent away from affiliated baseball and with his Canadian teammates.
At one end of the spectrum, he’d had one bad outing in Philadelphia before being designated for assignment the same day he was called up from Triple-A Lehigh Valley. And he didn’t want to play baseball anymore, the game he had grown up knowing and always enjoying.
“In the moment it was a little painful,” Aumont said. “Everything happened all at the same time, and I was struggling a little bit when I was in Lehigh, and it kind of all blew up inside a little bit. I was over it for a little while.”
And at the other end of the spectrum, the former first-round pick of the Seattle Mariners came full circle again, finding the fun in the sport and coming out on the winning end of a Pan Am championship with his first gold medal, and the second in program history.
“Obviously going to the Pan Ams, it was just fun to be there, to play ball, and cheer,” Aumont said. “We all know that pro ball is not going to be like that and it’s not as intense, but at the same time this is the game that I’ve grown up playing and I’ve just got to find a way to make it work for myself. That’s it…just find a way to have the same fun and just do it.
“Do it to get the opportunity to play in the major leagues. We all play this game for that, to get there and stay there, and rack up some time up there, and try to win a World Series, make as much money as we can; all of the above. But you’ve got to find that fun part again, and that kind of got away from me. Going to the Pan Ams for two weeks, it got back to me.”
During his time in Ajax, Ont., where all of the Pan Am baseball games are being played, Aumont also got back to some simpler ways of throwing the ball as well, with help from veteran hurler and seven-year big leaguer Shawn Hill.
“I talked with the guys, especially in between starts when I would go work on the mound,” he said. “I talked to Shawn Hill, we have a similar repertoire where we’re sinker ballers…and for me it’s just being able to control the sink and being consistent with the sink in the strike zone. He is a guy who does that. He is a guy who is really consistent at throwing sink balls in the strike zone.
“I’d be throwing bullpens and he would be around and say, ‘Hey, can I mention something?’ I was definitely open to listening to him, because we’re kind of in the same boat…so he was giving me tips here and there, how to stay balanced and get through the zone and throw the ball in the strike zone.”
Hill had seen Aumont throw a little bit playing with him for Canada’s World Baseball Classic team in 2013, and then later that season when their teams squared off against one another in the International League. They met again in Cary, NC for pre-tournament exhibition games before Pan Ams began, but it wasn’t until they got to Ajax that Hill made his move.
“It might have been our first workout day in Ajax when he was throwing a bullpen,” Hill said. “I asked him, ‘Do you mind if I point something out to you, show you something?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’
“So I went and showed him just a mechanical thing that in my opinion, is a glaring issue with him, that causes a lot of his wildness and inconsistencies, but it’s a relatively easy fix. It’s just something that probably nobody has either showed him, or has been able to show him effectively how to implement the proper change.”
The native of Georgetown, Ont., didn’t want to get too in-depth with what he was seeing from Aumont because he knew the big right-hander had games coming up and he didn’t want to mess around. Hill was afraid that he might plant the seed at the wrong time, but as it turns out, it couldn’t have been better timing, Aumont using his newfound adjustments to help him to the best game he’d ever thrown in his life, dominating Puerto Rico for eight shutout innings.
“During the game he got better as the game went on,” Hill said. “The game against Puerto Rico he went 12 up and 12 down, but if you recall, early on…he was falling behind hitters. Then once he got into the third or fourth inning, all of a sudden he got into a groove.
“I had the chart and at one point he had 10 or 12 straight pitches were strikes, which for anybody is really good, but for a guy who has so-called control issues, it’s obviously very, very good. So he started to implement a couple little things and get in a better rhythm with what we had talked about.
“It’s a relatively easy fix, but when you’re in the middle of a competition it’s hard to think too much about any fix whatsoever…especially in that environment of that competition where it’s all about getting outs. You don’t care how to do it at that point.”
Admitting that he can be his own worst enemy at times, expecting more than anyone else from himself when he’s out there on the mound, Aumont had planned to pick some veteran brains during his time with Team Canada. While he and Hill did discuss some of the struggles they’ve both experienced, it was perhaps the environment and the mechanical adjustment that made the difference mentally.
“There’s a lot of stuff that we could learn from each other,” Hill said. “I told him when we were there, ‘I honestly wish I had a week alone with you, and I’d have you ironed out in no time flat,’ because the flaw that he had was just a very basic, obvious one, especially with sinker balls, just with the way that we throw, typically we have a little bit more rotational stuff going on. It’s something I’ve seen time and time again…
“I tried to just relay that to him, tell him, ‘This is what you need to fix,’ and obviously now he’s in a different organization. Hopefully they can see what the issue is and go ahead and adjust it and help him out. With him, the stuff’s there, that’s not a question. It’s just somebody really needs to help him just correct a couple little things and tap into it, and just let him get out of his way.”