By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
AJAX, Ont. – Now’s the time.
The Canadian Women’s National Team is guaranteed to match its best-ever finish at an international tournament, heading into the gold medal game against Team USA on Sunday afternoon, but the squad wants to do better than that. After winning the only silver medal in program history in Japan in 2008, there’s only one goal left to achieve and the gold is in their sights.
All 18 members of Team Canada watched as the men’s team from north of the border defended its title on home soil in Ajax, Ont., after winning the Pan Am Games four years ago in Mexico, and while there was no better way for Baseball Canada’s Senior National Team to end its tournament, it was also the best possible start for the women.
“You cannot have better motivation than having the men win before,” Canadian manager Andre Lachance said. “We were all here to watch that game so they all know how it feels to win a game at the Pan Am Games, to win the gold medal in front of your people. That’s the goal.”
Throwing the first pitch for Team Canada when the historic women’s event started on Monday, Vanessa Riopel (Repentigny, Que.) will look to throw the last as well, taking the mound against the Americans in the gold medal game. After seeing her Baseball Canada brothers take down Team USA to win their hardware, she was inspired early for the end of the Games.
“To be with the men’s national team, Andre couldn’t have had a better pump up speech before the tournament,” Riopel said. “It was crazy, I was crying in the stands, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to be us Sunday,’ so it’s crazy.”
Both the men’s and women’s tournaments share a number of parallels. Baseball Canada’s senior squad lost its Friday night matchup to the Americans in a game that really didn’t mean anything to them, aside from the fact that they could have taken Team USA down right then and there and knocked them out of the event.
In the game, the men’s team did manage to save a number of arms – in large part thanks to Shane Dawson (Drayton Valley, Alta.) – to have everyone in the bullpen at the ready for its two final matchups. They faced the American squad for the second time in the gold medal game, and beat them when it mattered the most.
“Obviously the US got us in the one game,” right-hander Shawn Hill (Georgetown, Ont.) said. “But in fairness, I personally think that we weren’t exactly up for that as much as we needed to be. We all knew at the same time that it was completely irrelevant to us going into the next round, so kind of take that with a grain of salt.”
Canada’s women’s team went down on Friday night to Team USA in similar fashion. With a medal already locked up, the only things they were playing for were home-field advantage in the final and to skip over the bronze medal matchup on Saturday.
“Two World Cups in a row, we beat them when it didn’t matter and they beat us when it mattered,” veteran third baseman Ashley Stephenson (Burlington, Ont.) said. “That’s what I kind of said to the girls, that’s a reminder. They beat us when it didn’t necessarily matter…and we beat them when it matters.”
The Canadian squad was forced to win against Venezuela on Saturday, but still ended up in the same spot they would have with a win the previous night. Against Venezuela, Autumn Mills (London, Ont.) threw a complete-game gem to keep all arms on deck for the final game of the Pan Am tournament on Sunday.
“I don’t think there’s anyone we’d rather face in the finals,” Mills said. “It’s almost bittersweet in a way. If you look at the men, they ended up losing their first round robin game to the US, which was meaningless, and then they came back and won in extra innings. So I mean, I don’t think we’ll have to go extra innings, but I know we’re going to have the same outcome [Sunday] and we’re excited.”
The best game of the women’s event heading into Sunday was by far the first matchup between the two teams that will meet again in the final, both squads keeping it close and staying right on top of each other throughout, with the biggest crowd of the tournament battling back and forth the entire time as well. There’s no doubt that everyone will be hoping for more of the same, but with a different outcome for the home fans this time around.
“We’re going to work hard,” Becky Hartley (Whiterock, BC) said. “We have great pitching, we have great hitters, we have solid defence, and we’re going to use our fans to our advantage and take it to them.”
Added Lachance: “It comes down to the last game against the US, and anything can happen. We’re confident in our skills, confident in our athletes, confident in our lineup … The game [Friday] night was a heck of a game. From a spectator point of view, it was outstanding. I’ve been around for 12 years and it was probably one of the best games I’ve seen in women’s baseball.”
The women’s team couldn’t be more grateful for the crowds they’ve had at the ballpark – helping them the whole way through – and are just hoping for more of the same to finish it off.
“It’s unreal,” Mills said. “Having family and friends at the games, I can’t thank them enough for their support.
The cheers – when the other team’s fans start cheering they come right back, and that takes away their intensity. Instead of having nine-against-nine, we’ve got three thousand against nine, so we’re using that to our advantage and we’re definitely thankful for their support.”