Clarke making huge strides with help from Begg

Toronto Mets grad Denzel Clarke (Pickering, Ont.) has impressed for Canada at the U18 World Cup in Thunder Bay, Ont. Photo Credit: Eddie Michels

Toronto Mets grad Denzel Clarke (Pickering, Ont.) has impressed for Canada at the U18 World Cup in Thunder Bay, Ont. Photo Credit: Eddie Michels

By Alexis Brudnicki

Canadian Baseball Network

THUNDER BAY, Ontario – Denzel Clarke has been nothing short of impressive at the World Baseball Softball Confederation’s U18 World Cup in Thunder Bay.

In just a short time, since joining the Toronto Mets program and heading to Everest Academy – where he has the on-field tutelage of Team Canada coach Chris Begg – and being added to the Canadian Junior National Team, the 17-year-old outfielder has made huge strides, with plenty of room left to grow.

“When I first saw Denzel, it was about a year-and-a-half ago when he came to Everest,” Begg said. “He was just raw. You saw the athleticism there, but he hadn’t put any of it together yet. Over the course of a year-and-a-half, to see him in everyday things like Phys. Ed class, or playing pickup basketball,  his athleticism was starting to show.

“Even on the baseball field, when we practiced he was very raw on the outfield, he wasn’t taking great routes to the ball, and his arm has come a long way since we started.”

Together for the World Cup, Begg has had a chance to see his young pupil in action firsthand at Port Arthur Stadium, and has been impressed by what Clarke has done. In eight games, with the bronze-medal matchup left to play, the 6-foot-3, 187-pound right fielder has shown defensive instincts and athleticism, as well as going 7-for-22 with two doubles, six runs scored and five driven in.

“It’s funny,” the national team coach said. “He’s much better in games than he is in practice. He’s still raw, but he’s able to put those pieces together and it comes through in games.”

Added Clarke: “I feel like I have a little bit left to grow. I feel like the main thing I have to do is put on strength, and that will help with my baseball, because I’m working on polishing everything. What I have now, I’m able to work with it, but I want to work as hard as I can and see what I can become.”

Team Canada began its run to the bronze-medal game with two early losses against Chinese Taipei and Korea to land in a hole that meant it needed to win each subsequent game to move onto the super round. Facing Italy with elimination on the line, Clarke and his Canadian teammates didn’t hold a lead until the ninth inning, completing an epic comeback in the most exciting matchup of the event.

“That game was crazy,” the uncommitted outfielder said. “It was a do-or-die game, and it was a tight one. So for us to never get our heads down, keeping our heads up and then just to keep battling and find a way to win was amazing. I never had any doubts and I don’t think the team did. We just need to be really confident in ourselves. We know we can hit, and it’s just about getting going.”

After taking down the Italians, the Canadian squad notched wins against Australia and Nicaragua to secure its spot in the super round. There, Canada defeated Cuba and Japan to land a spot in Sunday’s bronze-medal contest, where it will meet Japan once more.

“Everything has been awesome so far,” Clarke said. “Everything has been exactly how Greg [Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams] said it would be, and the past alumni who have been on Team Canada said it would be. The crowd has been loud, and when you come here you don’t even need to be energized – the crowd will do it for you. It’s just been a great experience so far…

“Our mindset has always been to win, of course, but we need to always play hard and play our hearts out, and hope for the best.”

After growing up doing gymnastics, figure skating, tennis, track and more alongside baseball, the young native of Pickering, Ont., chose to stay primarily on the diamond at 10 years old – though he still trains with his mother Donna, a former Olympic heptathlete and current track coach. After starting with Pickering-Ajax clubs, he joined the Oshawa Legionaires, Ajax Spartans, and Ontario Blue Jays development program before the Mets.

“When I was younger, I did everything,” Clarke said. “I did a lot of stuff when I was growing up, until I hit the age of 10. It was just about trying different things until I found something I really hooked onto, and luckily baseball was it. It seems to be working so far, so hopefully I can stay with it…

“I still try to do any sports I can, whether it’s at school or when I go to a friend’s house, hanging out with them and playing sports. I love sports and I’ll play anything.”

Helped during some of his prime development years by the Mets and the Canadian Junior National Team, Clarke is excited to continue pushing his limits and make progress as he learns how to use his tools on the field.

“The Mets have been a really good program for me,” he said. “They took me in when I was 16 years old, and the way they help develop players has been really helpful, and playing in one of the better leagues in Canada and in Ontario has helped me a lot…

“The Junior National Team has been amazing. Facing the high level of competition on the March and April trips [against professionals at spring training], and going down to the Dominican in May was an eye-opening experience. All of it together has been really helpful for me.”

Clarke isn’t the only one looking forward to seeing what more he can do.

“His ceiling is as high as he wants it to be,” Begg said. “Look at the frame, look at the athleticism, look at the growth, look at the bloodlines – he’s got potential to be an all-star.”

Clarke is one of eight current or former Canadian Premier Baseball League players at the World Cup in Thunder Bay fighting for bronze. He is joined by Mets teammates Landon Leach and Dondrae Bremner, Great Lake Canadians Griffin Hassall, Lucas Parente and Eric Cerantola, and Ontario Blue Jays Harley Gollert and Noah Naylor.