By Alexis Brudnicki
THUNDER BAY, Ontario – As Team Canada moves into the super round of the World Baseball Softball Confederation’s U18 World Cup, the stakes only continue to get higher, the competition better, and the stage bigger.
Advancing from its pool with Korea and Australia, the Canadian Junior National Team will take on the best of the opposing group, matching up against USA, Japan and Cuba on the road to the medal round. On Thursday, Canada starts its super-round run with the three-time defending champs, and will send 6-foot-5, 195-pound right-hander Eric Cerantola to the mound to square off against the Americans.
“I’m as ready as it gets,” he said. “I’m excited that the coaching staff is handing me the ball and I’m ready to go. I found out probably 20 minutes after the game [against Nicaragua], when [pitching coach Mike Johnson] came up to me and told me, and I’m ready for it…I got a quick taste of the tournament in my last outing [against Korea] and I’m looking forward to Thursday.”
Despite Team USA looking like the team to beat in Thunder Bay, its pitching staff having allowed only one earned run through its first five games, Cerantola isn’t worried about who his opponent is or what the team has done, because it doesn’t change anything for the 17-year-old righty.
“I like to think that I won’t be thinking too much about who we’re playing,” Cerantola said. “I know they’re going to be a good team, and I just need to stick to my game plan, keeping hitters off balance and throwing strikes. If I can do those things, I’ll do just fine…
“Our guys are really good and they’ve been hitting the ball all over the place, in clutch situations, or using the long ball, and you never know what they can do. And defensively, we have very solid defenders and that’s part of my game plan, throwing strikes and letting the defence do their job.”
With a front row seat for all of the action Canada provided in its run through the opening round, Cerantola has enjoyed not only what his squad has accomplished on the field, but also the reaction of the home-country crowd through it all, with almost 15,000 people passing through the doors at Port Arthur Stadium to watch the boys in red and white.
“The experience so far has been amazing,” the native of Oakville, Ontario said. “Having the home crowd behind you, it’s just an incredible feeling that they’re cheering for your side. We’re just glad that we’re playing well for them and we hope to keep it going. It’s so much fun playing with the fan support, and it really is just a great experience.”
After an extra-inning heartbreaker to start off the tournament against Chinese Taipei, a tough loss to Korea, an epic ninth-inning comeback over Italy and two dominant wins against Australia and Nicaragua, Cerantola and his teammates have experienced almost everything international baseball has to offer, and have been forced to adjust quickly to the learning curve.
“I’ve learned that in international baseball, every team can beat any team at this point,” Cerantola said. “Even [Wednesday], 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.”
Throughout the last year with the national squad, the Great Lake Canadians hurler and Mississippi State commit has been preparing for the World Cup, using outings against professionals to get ready to pitch on the highest international stage, and continuing to learn and get better the entire time.
“The junior team has been a great opportunity to get to face professional batters, and to get to learn really how to pitch against those kind of batters,” Cerantola said. “It’s completely different than being at home, playing against other high school players. You really have to bring out that third pitch and learn how to locate. If you don’t locate, the mistakes are bigger. But it’s been fun.”
As the fun turns into intense competition, the Canadian squad is confident in the progress Cerantola has made and what he can bring to the table as it looks to continue moving forward.
“He’s grown a lot,” said Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams. “He’s got some gifts, obviously. You can’t take credit for teaching some of the things he brings to the table. I don’t think any of us can or should. He’s got size, he’s got an easy arm, he’s got great plane, and he spins the breaking ball.
“It’s just a matter of growing into that understanding and realization of the talent he has, and not getting too caught up in being in a hurry for all that to come together, and making changes rapidly…He’s got the makings of everything you’re looking for in a real, legitimate arm, so he’s got a chance to be really good.”
Already the greatest experience the former hockey player has ever had in baseball, Cerantola is hoping to keep riding that wave into the super round and beyond.
“This is incredible,” he said. “Just the fact that you’re playing international baseball against the best of other countries, and that you’re at home at the same time, it’s just amazing.
“This is the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s everything from the games – the games are always intense – everyone’s in it, everyone’s playing to win, the guys are awesome, we all have the same goal in mind, and that’s to win the gold medal, and the crowd has been awesome as well.”