By J.P. Antonacci
Photos: Matt Antonacci
Canadian Baseball Network
Hitting coaches preach the importance of having a plan for each at-bat. Thanks to some timely advice from a teammate, LaRon Smith executed his plan perfectly en route to driving in the Canadian Junior National Team’s (JNT) first run against the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin on Saturday.
“(Outfielder) Denzel (Clarke) came back and said the guy was throwing a lot of fastballs in and he has a pretty decent slider, so I thought why not attack that fastball in to try and get a hit right away,” Smith said.
So the 17-year-old from Spruce Grove, Alta., turned on the second fastball he saw from Blue Jays farmhand Maverik Buffo and smoked a double past a diving Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at third base. The ball rolled to the corner as Damiano Palmegiani (Surrey, B.C.) raced around to score from first and get the Canadians on the board.
“It felt really good hitting barrel, especially against these guys,” Smith said. “It’s a great feeling always.”
Smith’s RBI made the score 7-1 in the top of the sixth, and he later came around to score the JNT’s second run. The Jays prospect squad – led by the major league battery of Marcus Stroman and Russell Martin – handed the juniors an 11-3 loss, but also imparted some lessons about how to compete against players who’ve already made the leap to the professional ranks.
“Definitely just trying to get better every day, getting reps in the sun,” Smith said. “This is my first time (playing) outside in a while, so it feels really good.”
Led by head coach Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams, with help from coaches Roberto Alomar, Chris Begg, TJ Burton, Jeff Francis, Pete Orr and Adam Stern, the JNT counts 33 players from six provinces on its roster.
Baseball Canada’s JNT program has produced many future major leaguers, including current Blue Jays Russell Martin (Montreal, Que.) and Dalton Pompey (Mississauga, Ont.), and Philadelphia Phillies starter Nick Pivetta (Victoria, B.C.).
“With the junior national team, it was always a dream (to make the major leagues),” Pivetta said. “There were always scouts around and everything, especially with the program as prestigious as it is, with the way Greg (Hamilton) runs it. It’s the most elite talent that plays in that program.”
Pivetta said experiences like the JNT’s six-game spring training camp are invaluable for young Canadian players.
“I think it just gives them the experience of playing at a professional level at a young age that a lot of those elite high school guys in the States get to experience a lot of the time,” he said.
While the spring training camp is the JNT’s first event of the season, Smith said it didn’t take long for the players to bond.
“It develops really quickly. You just meet the guys, there’s always smiles and everyone’s always nice, always looking to make new friends,” said Smith, a product of the Okotoks Dawgs Baseball Academy.
Following their time in Florida, the juniors will head to training camps in Palm Beach in April and Dominican Republic in May, where players will continue to make their case to represent Canada at the U-18 Pan-Am baseball championships in Panama this September.
· The only blemish on Stroman’s two scoreless innings was a five-pitch watch to Mississauga catcher/third baseman Noah Naylor, who walked three times in four plate appearances. Naylor is currently ranked 47th on MLBPipeline.com’s top 50 prospects heading into the 2018 First-Year Player Draft.
· First baseman Edouard Savoie (St-Eustache, Que.) ranged to his right to spear a grounder off the bat of Dwight Smith Jr. and throw to second for the force out. On the next play, a strong throw from left fielder Blake Buckle (Milton, Ont.) cut down Smith trying to go from first to third on a single.
· Martin had some words of welcome for leadoff hitter Nicolas Tremblay from Mont St-Hilaire, Que., and the other juniors who came to bat during the veteran catcher’s two innings behind the plate.
· Showing the mature approach that has made Denzel Clarke a young player to watch, the outfielder from Pickering fell behind 0-2 but didn’t chase a high fastball and offspeed pitch away on the subsequent two pitches. Clarke then grounded what looked like a sure out to third, but Guerrero took his time unloading the throw, allowing the speedy outfielder to beat the ball to the bag. In the top of the ninth, Clarke tripled in Naylor with the JNT’s third run.
· Canadians Shane Dawson (Drayton Valley, Alta.) and Brayden Bouchey (White Rock, B.C.) also pitched for the Blue Jays, while fellow Canucks Connor Panas (Etobicoke, Ont.), Owen Spiwak (Mississauga, Ont.), Mattingly Romanin (Burlington, Ont.) and Guerrero (Montreal) saw time on the field.
· Braden Halladay entered the game to loud and long applause from the nearly 3,000 fans at Dunedin Stadium. Using a windup reminiscent of his late father’s, Halladay set down his three batters in order, ending the inning by inducing a ground out from shortstop Bo Bichette and walking off the field to more warm applause from the Blue Jays faithful.
The following are more of Matt Antonacci's photos from the JNT's game against the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday: