By J.P. Antonacci
Canadian Baseball Network
Eric Cerantola was in a jam.
The lanky right-hander with the Canadian Junior National Team had a Blue Jay on every base after two walks and an error, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., arguably the best prospect in baseball, at the plate.
It had been that kind of afternoon for Cerantola, whose two innings of work against a lineup of minor leaguers were eventful to say the least.
He entered the game at Dunedin Stadium in the fourth, with the juniors down 6-0 thanks in part to a two-run homer by the other stud prospect in Toronto’s lineup, shortstop Bo Bichette.
The Oakville pitcher’s first offering plunked Jays second baseman Cavan Biggio, an inauspicious start somewhat rectified when Cerantola induced Bichette to fly out to right. But walks to catcher Riley Adams and outfielder Dwight Smith Jr., sandwiched around a Guerrero fly out, set up a bases-loaded confrontation with designated hitter Brandon Grudzielanek.
Cerantola collected himself, working ahead in the count with two slow curves that fell in for strikes.
Then the six-foot-five redhead reared back and threw a 91 mph high fastball that Grudzielanek tipped into catcher Noah Naylor’s glove for strike three.
It wasn’t smooth sailing, but Cerantola had worked out of a tight spot to record his team’s first scoreless inning of the game. Could he do it again?
The fifth inning got off on a promising note when first baseman Kacy Clemens (son of Roger and one of six Jays prospects in Saturday’s lineup to boast big-league lineage) flew out to right.
Then trouble again reared its wild head. Cerantola walked Connor Panas (Toronto, Ont.) and McGregory Contreras, with pinch hitter Mattingly Romanin (Burlington, Ont.) stinging a line drive to short that Cesar Valero couldn’t handle.
Bichette dug in in search of his third hit of the afternoon. He turned on the first pitch he saw from Cerantola and sent right fielder Dasan Brown to the warning track, missing a grand slam by a few feet.
That long out was enough to score Panas from third, though the run was unearned. Another walk to Adams brought up Guerrero with the bases juiced and Cerantola wondering just how much more of this tightrope was left to walk.
Guerrero worked the count full before lofting a fly ball to shallow centre. Denzel Clarke (Pickering, Ont.) raced in, loudly calling off the middle infielders to make the catch and allow Team Canada’s dugout to collectively exhale.
Cerantola’s final line shows no hits, five walks, one hit batter and one strikeout, with just the unearned run allowed. More importantly in terms of his development as a pitcher, the 17-year-old avoided the big inning while labouring through a tough lineup.
“I knew I didn’t have my best stuff, so I was just going up there and competing. It was my first outing of the year, first time throwing off the mound outside, so I was just trying to go out there, execute and do my best,” Cerantola said after the game, which the Blue Jays won 11-3.
“I know I’m capable of finding that strike zone. It’s just tiny adjustments,” he added. “In the end, today, I didn’t really have it, but I’m pretty happy with the outcome anyways.”
Cerantola’s coaches with Baseball Canada and the London-based Great Lakes Canadians are likely also pleased with the young pitcher’s progress, especially considering he is only entering his third full season on the mound. The Owen Sound Attack of the Ontario Hockey League made Cerantola their eight-round pick in 2016, but he opted to focus on baseball.
“It’s a process, but it’s been going well,” said Cerantola, who represented Canada at the 2017 WBSC U-18 Baseball World Cup.
“The main focus last season was fastball command, and today I didn’t really show it. But it’s something I’m going to keep working on, along with getting on top of that breaking ball. I have a good one and it’s just about finding it again.”
Cerantola has committed to Mississippi State with hopes of getting drafted by an MLB team this year, helped by his appearance on Baseball America’s top 300 combined list of high school and college players (Cerantola ranked 250 as of March 1).
Saturday’s outing showcased the raw tools and competitiveness that could see Cerantola make it as a professional athlete. This year he wants to mix in his changeup more often and keep his fastball down, admitting with a smile that the pitches Guerrero and other Jays chased high in the zone weren’t always supposed to end up there.
“Sometimes I was just missing high,” Cerantola said. “That at-bat (against Guererro with the bases loaded) was all just grinding it out and trying to get him out. That’s all that was on my mind.”
This was Cerantola’s second year competing with the juniors against the Blue Jays. In 2017 he mostly watched the seniors play, but this year coach Greg Hamilton told him he’d be on the mound.
“It was exciting to get the game and pitch against major league ballplayers,” Cerantola. “Being from Toronto and facing the up-and-coming stars that Toronto’s going to have in the future.”
If Cerantola can continue developing his pitching arsenal and further refine the poise and mental toughness he showed on Saturday, he might join that list of up-and-coming stars sooner than later.