* August Mills, who is expected to take the mound for Canada's most crucial games in the upcoming World Cup, looked strong in a tune-up Tuesday, allowing just one run over four innings against Japan's top high school team. (Photo: Alexis Brudnicki). .... 2014 Canadians in the Minors … Canadians drafted … Canadians in College 2015 Canadian draft list Letters of Intent
By Alexis Brudnicki
URAWA, Japan - The extra preparation Autumn Mills put in throughout the off-season has already paid dividends for the Canadian Women's National Team, as the right-hander from London, Ont. made a strong start Tuesday in an eventual 7-1 exhibition loss to Saitawa Sakae.
Mills went four innings and allowed just one run on five hits with one walk and two hit batters, and looked great on the mound in her first outing for the squad since arriving in Japan. She left the bases loaded in the second, stranded two runners in the fourth, and didn't look in trouble at any time.
"She was actually better than the results showed," team manager Andre Lachance said. "In the first inning there were a lot of good pitches that were called balls, but they're going to be strikes at the World Cup. She was outstanding through the first four innings, no problems, so it's a good sign for the World Cup, for sure, because she's one of our aces."
In preparation for the upcoming IBAF Women's Baseball World Cup competition in Miyazaki, Japan from September 1-7, Mills switched up her workout routine through the winter, a choice she is glad she made.
"This past off-season I took cross-fit really seriously," the 26-year-old said. "I was in the gym at least six out of seven days a week working on strength and conditioning.
"I've probably gained about three miles an hour on my fastball, which isn't much, but the biggest thing for me is in the fifth, sixth, seven innings I'm throwing just as hard as I was in the first inning. My muscular endurance is the best it's been."
The change in gym habits has also helped Mills with her post-pitching recovery time, a factor likely to come in handy in Miyazaki when the Canadian squad will play a number of high-intensity games over a short period of time.
"For sure," she said. "I have zero injuries. The only time I'm ever sore is from a workout. I have no arm problems and I feel pretty good all the time. I think that actually has helped as well."
In the third of four exhibition games in Japan for the national team, facing the top high school program in the country, Mills felt her appearance worked well in getting her ready for some of the things she will have to face during the World Cup.
"The mound [prepared me], because I have a feeling that all Japanese diamonds are going to be like that," she said. "The umpires don't speak English so there's the language barrier, and then the fact that they see things a little differently than we do, which is fine.
"That was a good test and I was able to stay calm and almost laugh about it because there's nothing you can do. It was good to get the arm going. I was worried I was only going to pitch two innings and I'm really glad that I got to go four."
The performance for Mills came one game after a 2-for-3 day at the plate, playing right field in the team's second exhibition game, and there is a chance that the hurler could see extended time in the outfield.
"In the past, we have never really used her defensively, but she's going to have a shot this year in right field," Lachance said. "She's going to be on the field tomorrow, but she's a pitcher first. She's been our ace for the last couple years and she's going to get the key games for sure. She's done a lot for us in the past in key game situations and I'm sure she's going to deliver again."
Mills is most looking forward to her time on the hill in Miyazaki, but has embraced her role as a two-way player for the team and is ready to get into the tournament.
"I've been a pitcher for 10 years on this team so that's my No. 1 position," Mills said. "I feel confident in the outfield, but I am probably the most confident I've ever been on the mound. I worked really hard in the off-season and I know I can get the job done.
"We had no outs, bases loaded, and I wasn't worried about it at all. It's just a matter of battling the umpires and not getting the calls you want but still being persistent and trusting your defence, and good things happen."
Coming on in relief of Mills, rookies Heather Healey (Paradise, NL) and Claire Eccles (Surrey, B.C.) didn't fare as well. Both making their team debuts, Healey completed two-thirds of an inning and allowed four runs on one hit with two walks and a hit batter. The 17-year-old took the loss.
Eccles faced five batters without recording an out, allowed three inherited baserunners to score, gave up two of her own runs on no hits, walked four and hit one batter.
"I prefer they have that performance here than at the World Cup," Lachance said. "They were very nervous. You could tell just by the way they were breathing, and that's something we've got to talk to them about.
"It's important to breathe and relax and to realize that the defence is good. We probably have one of the best defences in the world, so they have to have confidence in their pitching. It's something they've never been through before, so today was a good learning game."
At the plate, Red Deer, Alta.'s Kelsey Lalor drove in Team Canada's lone run of the game with a sacrifice fly in the fifth inning, adding to a single and a stolen base for the 16-year-old in the first.
Nicole Luchanski (Edmonton, Alta.), Bradi Wall (Swift Current, Sask.), Amanda Asay (Prince George, B.C.) and Emma Carr (Toronto, Ont.) each notched singles in the game, while Meagan Cornelssen (Grand Prairie, Alta.) added a double.
Next up for the Women's National Team is the final of four exhibition games in Japan as they take on a team from the Japanese Professional Women's League with the first pitch slated for 11:30PM EST. Ella Matteucci (Fruitvale, BC) gets the start for Team Canada.
-- Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis