By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
THUNDER BAY, Ontario – Win or go home.
After three days and two games at the U18 World Cup in Thunder Bay, Ont., the Canadian Junior National Team is in an unenviable position, needing to win every game it has remaining on the schedule to advance in the tournament and continue its quest for a championship on home soil.
Following a heartbreaking extra-inning loss to Chinese Taipei on Friday and a postponed, rained-out contest against Nicaragua on Saturday, the Canadians fell 11-7 in a battle against South Korea on Sunday, forcing Canada into a position where it will require victories against Italy, Australia and Nicaragua to move on to the super round.
“They have to win,” said Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams. “There’s no margin anymore. We’ve got to win games and we’ve got to win them all. If we don’t, we’re not going to be playing for anything meaningful.”
The Canadian Junior National Team fell into an early hole against South Korea when catcher Dae Hyun Cho hit a three-run home run just over the left-field wall, and though the teams battled back and forth throughout the entire matchup, the host nation’s squad could never work itself into a lead.
“Our inability to stop them was the difference,” Hamilton said. “Obviously the walks heavily contributed to that, but every time we had a little bit of life they would come back and score, and we just couldn’t stop them.”
Using four hurlers in the matchup, Team Canada issued a total of 14 walks, combining with three defensive errors to allow more extra baserunners than it could overcome. Right-hander Landon Leach from Pickering, Ont., got the start for the home squad, and after signing with the Minnesota Twins in June, when they made him the first pick of the second round, was limited to 3 1/3 innings, in which he allowed five runs on four hits with three walks and two strikeouts.
“They scored pretty much every inning, and that kind of takes the life out of your offence,” the team’s skipper said. “I mean, we battled back. We spotted them early, and we had a couple chances to make it real interesting, and then they put a couple more on the board and we just never really could break through that.”
The Canadian hitters got on the board in the third, thanks to a two-run home run from Quebec City’s Edouard Julien, but the Korean team answered with two runs of its own in the next half inning. When Maple Ridge, B.C. native Michael Stovman narrowed the gap with his first homer of the tournament in the fourth frame, the visitors added two more runs to start the fifth.
With a 9-3 lead heading into the bottom of the seventh, Canada began to rally, using a wild pitch, two walks, two errors and a sacrifice fly to plate four and close the deficit to two, but the Koreans added two more runs in the top of the eighth to give themselves the lead they would leave with. Canada stranded five men on base over the final two frames.
“I’ve got nothing but positive feelings around what the offence did,” Hamilton said. “It’s tough when you’re down early and you’re fighting back all the time, and they continued to fight back. They continued to stay with it. We got the tying run to the plate in the ninth, and one swing of the bat [could have been the difference].”
In the bottom of the eighth, Team Canada fell victim to Korea’s defence. Though the visiting team totalled four errors in the matchup, Korean third baseman Jeong Woo Kim snagged a hot-shot line drive off the bat of Pickering native Denzel Clarke right at the bag just when he needed it, and likely would have turned a triple play if Canada’s right fielder hadn’t been so quick down the line.
“I don’t want to use the word luck, but we haven’t really been able to get that big hit thus far, or make that play,” Canada’s manager said. “I mean, that third baseman today made two plays that turned everything around. They had a shortstop the other night who made a major league play to save the game for Taipei, and that ball on Denzel tonight was a great play.
“You tip your cap. They made the plays when they had to make the plays, and they seemed to put a couple runs up on the board when they needed to put a couple runs up on the board consistently.”
Using three pitchers and a quality start from Gwak Been, Korea limited Canada to five walks and combined for 13 strikeouts, giving its squad the advantage it needed to come out on top.
“We’ve walked too many guys,” Hamilton said. “We walked over 10 again today, so when you’re walking 10 guys, you’re giving the other team a lot of opportunities. It’s way too many, and you’re just not going to be successful walking that many people.”
Looking to change the fate of the Canadian team on Monday against Italy will be Ben Abram, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound right-handed hurler from Georgetown, Ont., who has been a consistent strike thrower as he’s developed with the junior team over the last couple of years. Hoping to limit the opportunities for the Italians, he feels some of the pressure of the must-win situation, but believes he and his teammates can do what they came to Thunder Bay to do.
“There’s already a lot of pressure to begin with, but with a couple tough losses, obviously it adds pressure,” Abram said. “But I’m excited to get out there, I’m excited to get it going, and we’ve got a good chance. We’ll see what happens…
“You don’t really want to walk anybody, but when I stick to how I pitch, then I should be fine. I like to pound the zone, use a lot of movement to get people out, and if I can do that tomorrow we'll be fine."