By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
THUNDER BAY, Ontario – From the start of the World Baseball Softball Confederation’s U18 World Cup to the end of the first round of play, the Canadian Junior National Team has already been given the experience of a lifetime, with several games left to play.
Building up to a 15-3 seven-inning mercy win over Nicaragua on Wednesday night, Canada got off to a slow start, landing in a hole after beginning its tournament with tough losses to Taiwan and Korea, before trailing for eight innings to Italy on the brink of relegation to the consolation round.
After taking down the Italians and the Aussies – with crowds averaging around 3,000 at each of Canada’s games at Port Arthur Stadium – the win against Nicaragua secured its spot in the super round of play, with momentum on the side of the host nation’s squad.
“It’s been amazing,” Canadian shortstop Jason Willow said. “As a team, everyone is feeling that around us. Yeah, this is going to be the last time we’re together, but at the same time it’s like we want to end on the best note possible. That’s something that drives us and makes us want to play better and play for each other, so overall that’s making us play better, and hopefully we can finish it well.”
With a consistent core of players who have toured together as members of Team Canada for the last couple of years, the current squad is experiencing its first taste of international baseball, and getting up to speed quickly with a steep learning curve.
“I’ve learned that in international baseball, every team can beat any team at this point,” said right-hander and Oakville, Ont., native Eric Cerantola, who will start Canada’s first game of the super round. “Even today, we kind of let Nicaragua come in a little bit, and it was a game at one point. So every team can beat any other team on any given day, it’s just a matter of going out there and playing your heart out.”
Added Willow: “The international game is exciting. There’s never a dull moment. I mean, look at the game against Italy. We walked in there and us, not playing international baseball before, we kind of let them off a good bit, and we didn’t think they were going to come out like that. It ended up being a great game and we just squeaked it out, so it’s taught us a lot of things. We’ve had exciting games, which is good and it helps the fans.”
So far, the ups and downs of the tournament and the in-depth experience of the international game have only added to the team atmosphere on the home side, giving Canada exactly what Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams, had hoped his squad would feel.
“This is extra special,” Hamilton said. “You like to see the players really experience international baseball. We have a lot of great development experiences along the way, but to put on the jersey in front of the home crowd, and be in a world championship, they know what it’s all about now and it’s something that they’ll take with them the rest of their lives. They’ve got smiles on their faces, they love playing, and they’re having fun playing for each other and playing for their country.”
In Wednesday’s matchup, the Canadians used a 10-run seventh inning to propel them to victory, along with home runs from Victoria, B.C.’s Willow and Winnipeg, Manitoba’s Victor Cerny – extending the team’s lead in long balls among all squads in the tournament. First baseman and Pointe-Claire, Que., native Archer Brookman drove in three in the contest, Cerny’s shot also drove home three, and right fielder Denzel Clarke of Pickering, Ont., added three RBI of his own in the affair.
“The seventh inning was good,” Willow said. “It was kind of just like putting our foot down. The whole game, we knew we were the better team, and just waiting for that to happen and it did. That’s what we should do. Greg’s got faith in us, and it’s just another good thing going into tomorrow, the bats are working, so we’re really looking forward to that…
“It’s been a good turnaround. It’s exactly what we needed, to turn around and go into the second round like this, especially after tonight with kind of an exclamation point, having a big game like this [against Nicaragua], putting up a lot of runs. We’re ready for tomorrow night against USA. It’s going to be a good start to the second round, and it’s going to be exciting. I’m looking forward to it.”
After cementing their spot in the super round, the Canadians will be forced to take on USA, Japan and Cuba on the quest for gold, starting with the undefeated American squad on Thursday, a roster that has only allowed one earned run through its first five matchups.
“They’re a good team,” Hamilton said. “They’re a complete team, and obviously positionally they’re good, but their strength is depth of pitching. They’ve got some big arms, one through nine, and even a couple other arms on top of that. You’re going to have to scrap and scrape and hope that you run into a couple at the right time, and then get a nice pitching performance around it.”
Added Willow: “This next round, we’re only going to see good pitching. It’s all the powerhouses. So just trying not to get too aggressive, and playing the game that we’re built to play, using speed and getting on base, not trying to push too much, that’s going to help us a lot.”
With the pressure on the three-time defending champion American team, Willow is excited to use the momentum his team has gained and see what it can do when the expectations are on the other side of the table.
“I kind of like being the underdog,” the 18-year-old said. “It’s always good because when you’re the underdogs, no one’s expecting for you to win, it’s the way it is. When you expect to win, things can go wrong real quick. And especially with the crowd, we’ve shown this past week that once we get going, I don’t know what can stop us.”
The classic rivalry between the two North American countries is only the beginning of the second round of the World Cup, but the Canadians believe there’s no better way to keep things rolling.
“We’ve had some great battles with them over the years,” Hamilton said. “They’re the standard, and in hockey, we’re the standard, and it’s in parallel now. We have a puncher’s chance every opportunity we play them, both with our junior team and senior team now; we’re good enough to be on the field. They have more depth and probably on paper are a little bit better [from] bottom to top, but we’re good enough that on a given night, we can beat them.”