By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
THUNDER BAY, Ontario, Canada – It was international baseball at its finest.
When the Canadian Junior National Team took on Italy in its third matchup of the U18 World Cup in Thunder Bay – in a hole after two early losses – it needed to win, and looked poised to do so.
Italy had already lost to Australia and Chinese Taipei after opening its tournament with a win against Nicaragua, and the European squad’s big guns seemed no match for the host nation on paper. Canada had 6-foot-8, 235-pound strike-thrower Ben Abram on the mound with a lineup that was eager for a victory.
“I’ve been around the international game long enough to fear those games,” said Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams. “Those are games that you can talk to players about, you can explain to them that baseball is a game, on a given night anything can happen, and they still have to somehow understand that and find enough resolve to get through it. Those games are rarely ever easy.”
When the Italians struck first, with a solo home run in the second from first baseman Leonardo Seminati, Team Canada answered right back with a run of its own in the next half inning. After Italy added two more in the fourth, the Canadians could only scrape one more run on the board before the squad in blue and white plated another two in the following frame. Once again, the host nation got a run back, but only one, and found itself in a 5-3 hole heading into the eighth inning.
“I had confidence in us the whole way,” Canadian shortstop Jason Willow said. “Our whole team did. At the start, we might have been iffy, but near the fifth inning, even when we were down that’s when we really knew that we had this game. After that, there was no doubt that we were going to win it.”
With the confidence flowing post-game, and in retrospective looks back at the matchup, there were some points during Monday night’s matchup where the Canadian dugout seemed to falter, even if in just the slightest.
“I was not so much worried during the game, but wanting the team to calm down,” Willow, a native of Victoria, B.C. said. “We got a little caught up in ourselves and started to panic a bit, but Greg, he does everything for us, and this time he calmed us down and that’s what helped us win that game. We all calmed down and just started to play and not try to do too much…
“It was the fourth or fifth inning and he called us in and calmly said, ‘You know what boys? There’s lots of game left, we’re better than this team. Just play how we do, don’t try to push too much.’ That’s what a good coach does, and look what happened.”
The normally-stoic manager of the junior team admitted that he used his nature to catch his squad off guard and to help change the demeanour on the bench so that the players could carry it onto the field and turn the game around.
“I actually got excited to calm them down,” Hamilton said. “They were starting to pick at each other, they were starting to press, they were starting to do too many things, so I raised my voice, threw a couple adjectives in, and then explained to them that I wasn’t upset at all, that I wanted them to relax, and I was just trying to get their attention. We weren’t going to do this thing unless we battled and we tried to pick away, stopped trying to do it all by themselves, not do it all at once, and just get a little bit too frustrated with the situation.
“When you see that, that’s when you get concerned because that’s how you get beat by teams like that. There’s lots of baseball left, you’ve got to stay with it, you’ve got to compete. It never serves you any good to press. It always turns out negative. So I did raise my voice and throw in an adjective, but it was just to get their attention to hopefully calm them down.”
“The energy turned it around,” said Wesley Moore, a native of Surrey, B.C., and the eventual game winner. “We got some runners on early in the sixth inning, and our energy started getting high, and we just kind of got up on the fence and we were ready to go. We knew we couldn’t lose to these guys or else we were done, so we wanted to play hard.”
Leading off the eighth, centre fielder and Burlington, Ont., native Lucas Parente laid down a perfect bunt that hit third base as it rolled along the foul line. Pickering, Ontario’s Denzel Clarke walked right behind him, before a failed bunt attempt and a strikeout left Canada one out to work with in the inning.
Enter Willow, the team’s captain and the man who had already driven in Canada’s third run.
Sending a ball deep in to the right-centre gap, the Cal State Northridge commit landed on third after tying up the game and allowing his team to head into the ninth inning without trailing for the first time in seven frames.
“It was an unreal feeling,” Willow said. “That’s what you live for right there. There’s nothing better than representing your country and having a feeling like that. It was amazing.”
Team Canada went ahead for good in the top of the ninth, when Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, Que., native Marc-Antoine Lebreux brought the winning run in with a sacrifice fly to follow a hit batsmen, a sacrifice bunt, and two walks to start the frame.
Moore secured the 6-5 victory in the bottom half, completing 3 1/3 innings of high-stress work in a gutsy performance. After throwing 82 pitches to record 10 outs on Friday night, starting Canada’s opener, the 17-year-old soft-tossing southpaw – turning 18 on Tuesday – used just 40 pitches to do the same on Monday in relief, allowing only three hits, walking none, and striking out five, on in relief of Harley Gollert and Abram.
“He was big, real big,” Willow said. “I mean, that’s what we need out of the bullpen, and coming in on short rest after the start the first night, he did a great job, had the crowd going, and he really used that to his advantage.”
Having to bring the young lefty into the game wasn’t something the Canadian coaching staff was hoping to do on Monday, but now that all is said and done, it’s easy to say that it was the right choice at the right time.
“We weren’t planning on going there, but we had to win,” Hamilton said. “It’s got to the point there where we couldn’t give them anymore. We had to use our guy in that situation, not that we wanted to, but there is no tomorrow if you don’t stop it there. You don’t play tomorrow. He came back on three days’ rest and went three innings. It would be a side day for him anyway, but we needed him. We needed all of that.”
Added Moore: “It was amazing. The adrenaline was going, it was an amazing feeling, pitching in our home country. It was crazy. The fans were amazing…This has definitely fired us up. I hope we can get something rolling here and get into the next round.”
For three hours and 46 minutes on Monday at Port Arthur Stadium, Team Canada went through a roller coaster of emotions in front of 3,487 fans who felt every opposing run with them, went through the ups and downs with them, and cheered them to heightened energy levels with every out.
The early deficit was disappointing, and the comeback was not only epic, but it was also necessary, and the win was just something Hamilton was so glad his players had the opportunity to experience.
“The most important thing that our players got to experience tonight was what international baseball is,” said Hamilton. “You want to let them feel what that feels like. You want to let them experience that emotion, and hopefully that will carry us over the next two games, realizing how special it can be when you get a taste of it.
“Tonight was the first time we got a true taste of it. The first couple games of the tournament, there is a tomorrow. You don’t want to be 0-2, but there is another day. There was no other day tonight. That’s what makes the international game special. They felt that. At the end I just said, ‘I thought maybe we were going to finish this thing off without you guys ever experiencing what it truly feels like to be in international baseball, and you got a chance to feel that tonight.’”