By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
THUNDER BAY, Ontario – For the first time in five days at the World Baseball Softball Confederation’s U18 World Cup in Thunder Bay, Canada let out a sigh of relief.
It was brief – with the host nation heading into its third-straight must-win matchup on Wednesday against Nicaragua after two early-tournament losses – but for a moment, after three home runs gave Team Canada a six-run advantage in the second inning against Australia on Tuesday night, everyone in red and white could finally breathe.
“The early runs were big,” Team Canada second baseman and Quebec City native Edouard Julien said. “The last couple games, we didn’t have the push that we needed in the first couple innings. It was always at the end, when we were down to our last chance, but now we went out and had a lot of energy, and we’ve got to keep that for tomorrow.”
Catcher Archer Brookman, of Pointe-Claire, Que., got the home team on the board first with a two-run shot in the opening frame, his second home run of the tournament. Maple Ridge, B.C.’s Michael Stovman immediately followed with his second long ball of the event, the team going back-to-back for the first time. Julien launched a three-run shot with one out in the second frame, also giving him two in five games.
“It was a difference maker to put up six runs in the first two innings,” said Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams. “You breathe, and it makes it a whole lot easier for everybody, including the offence, because we were pressing a little bit last night. And when you start pressing, it never works as a hitter, so it was nice to get that breathing room.”
On paper, the Canadian Junior National Team didn’t look like the squad that would be leading the tournament in home runs through the first round of play, or one that would be using the long ball to win games, but they have been evidence of just how versatile the lineup can be when the Canucks are at the top of their game.
“I didn’t think we’d be hitting this many home runs, because we’re more of a speed team, but we definitely have a lot of power and it’s really shown this time out,” said Jack DeCooman, Canada’s starter against Australia. “We’ve really gotten on a roll now and it’s definitely going to help us tomorrow. Hopefully we can come out and get another win against Nicaragua, and it will take us into the super round.”
Added Hamilton: “You’ll take those. I wouldn’t say we’re a knock-the-fence-down type of team, this is usually a team that has to push a little bit, and you’ve got a little bit of power in spots. It really is a collective effort offensively, but we’ll take the long ball, and it worked real well today.”
An extra-inning heartbreaker against Taiwan and a tough loss to the leader of the pool Korea put Canada in a less-than-desirable spot early at the World Cup, forced to win every subsequent game or be relegated to the consolation round. After an epic – and stressful – ninth-inning comeback against Italy, the authoritative 8-2 win over Australia was just what the squad needed.
“It’s nice to have a little breathing room, take some of the pressure off,” Hamilton said. “You like the offence to give you some room, some space. You can’t manage for tomorrow, but that was the best-case scenario because you don’t have to use up a ton of pitching to get through there.”
Vancouver southpaw DeCooman got the start for the home team against the Aussies, and after Team Canada was forced further into its bullpen than desired on Monday, he offered the length it needed, going six innings and allowing just one run on five hits with two walks and three strikeouts. Abbotsford, B.C. native Cade Smith threw the final three frames and gave up one run on four hits with a walk, the righty fanning two.
“We needed that, especially after yesterday,” Hamilton said. “We weren’t planning to use necessarily the people that we used yesterday, and we had to. Full marks to Italy, but that made it difficult today. But they’re all must-win games. So the fact that [DeCooman] was able to get into the middle innings, and we didn’t have to go to tomorrow’s starter, that really helps us a lot.”
Even with the excitement brought by consecutive wins with their backs against the wall, the Canadians understand that they still need to secure their berth in the super round of the World Cup with a win over Nicaragua on Wednesday.
“Knowing we have to win tomorrow, we’re going to try to come out to the same start,” Brookman said. “We’re going to try to carry some of this emotion, not all of it but some of it, to tomorrow night and hopefully put a few on the board early again and then just shut ‘er down with our pitching staff.”
Added Julien: “We need to win every game, and we have no expectations. We have to win, and we need to go out there and give everything we have. This might be the last time we get to play with each other, and it might be the last time that we get to play with Team Canada, so we know we need to win, and I’m giving it everything I have.”
Though Canada has a more experienced squad than Nicaragua, if there’s one thing the team learned from its battle down to the wire with Team Italy after two early losses, it’s not to take any team lightly, and that anything can happen in international baseball.
“As I said to the guys after, I don’t want to dampen the celebration or be that guy, but it’s all for naught if we’re not ready for tomorrow,” Hamilton said. “And as last night [against Italy] showed, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing. It’s not always easy. They had nothing to lose. They’re playing with house money, and when you’re playing a team that’s pretty much got nothing to lose, if you give them a little life, it can be hard. So we’ve got to get out early, and try to do what we did today.”