A shocking loss to Italy at the 2009 World Baseball Classic and slim victory over South Africa at the same event three years earlier undoubtedly taught Canadian players a valuable lesson, but also their manager.
Former Toronto Blue Jays catcher Ernie Whitt is back for a third consecutive WBC, a 16-team, 19-day tournament played across the globe which began March 1.
"In ’09, maybe we felt we would have a fairly easy time with Italy but we should have learned from ’06," Whitt said by phone recently from Clearwater, Fla., where he attended Philadelphia Phillies spring training as a roaming instructor before flying to Phoenix for the 2013 WBC.
"South Africa almost beat us because we probably took them a little bit lightly. It’s my job along with the coaching staff to get our players mentally prepared with the intensity that’s needed at this level."
Whitt, 60, said Canada must play with more intensity when it opens the tourney Friday against the Italians in a Pool D matchup at 2:08 p.m. ET in Phoenix. Italy built a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning at the Rogers Centre in Toronto on March 9, 2009 en route to a 6-2 win before 12,411 stunned fans, knocking Canada out of the tourney after it had lost a 6-5 decision to the United States earlier on.
"We gave USA a battle but it was very disappointing to lose to Italy, the team that we shouldn’t have lost to," Whitt said. "I’m not taking anything away from Italy, they beat us.
"In ’09, we had what we thought was a very offensive team and we ended up scoring two runs [against] Italy. When you score two runs it’s very difficult to win a ball game. I think we’re going to use that as inspiration to not overlook anyone and to go after Italy very strong, followed by Mexico and take it one game at a time.
"We just need to grind out every at-bat," continued Whitt, "and our pitchers need to execute every pitch with some conviction behind it."
Canada ranked 6th
Canada, ranked sixth by the International Baseball Federation among 75 member countries, plays 11th-ranked Mexico Saturday (2:30 pm) before facing the No. 2 U.S. on Sunday (4 p.m. ET) to finish round-robin play in the opening round. The top two teams in each of the four pools advance to a double-elimination format in Round 2 at Marlins Park in Miami, with two pools comprised of four teams.
The championship round will be played at AT&T Park in San Francisco, with the final game scheduled for March 19 at 8 p.m. ET.
- Pool A (March 2-6 in Fukoka, Japan): Japan, China, Cuba, Brazil
- Pool B (March 1-6 in Taichung, Taiwan): Korea, Netherlands, Australia, Chinese Taipei
- Pool C (March 7-10 in San Juan, Puerto Rico): Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Spain
- Pool D (March 8-10 in Phoenix): CANADA, United States, Italy, Mexico
The Canadians failed to advance past the first round in 2006 and 2009. Seven years ago, Canada had a 2-1 record like Mexico and the U.S. but lost a tiebreaker despite beating the Americans 8-6 in Arizona.
"We know if we win our first two games we’re going on. I don’t think anything can change that and that’s our mindset," said Whitt, who spent 15 seasons in the majors with Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston and Toronto. "[Italy and Mexico] are both comparable to us. It’ll boil down to [whichever team] does things fundamentally right, not giving the extra out in an inning and have their pitchers execute every pitch."
Whitt likes the back end of his bullpen with power arms such as Phillippe Aumont (Philadelphia Phillies) and Jim Henderson (Milwaukee Brewers) setting up for closer John Axford (Milwaukee). All that’s left is for the starters to keep Canada in games entering the sixth inning and for the offence to come through.
Whitt told CBCSports.ca that right-hander Shawn Hill will start against a predominantly right-handed hitting Italian lineup, followed by Scott Mathieson. Hill, a 31-year-old in the Detroit Tigers organization, has a 4.69 earned-run average in 45 major league games with Montreal, Washington, San Diego and Toronto.
Vancouver's Mathieson, a former Philadelphia Phillies reliever, helped Japan's Yomiuri Giants win the Nippon Professional Baseball championship last season. The 29-year-old played for Canada at the 2006 WBC.
Chris Leroux, 28, is expected to get the start against Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Adrian Gonzalez and the Mexicans and be followed by [Saskatchewan lefty Andrew] Albers, said Whitt, "because [the Mexicans] have some left-handed hitters so we want to try to neutralize some of them."
"That’s in pencil, not in pen," Canada’s manager cautioned. "The beginning of next week in Phoenix [where Canada will hold workouts and two exhibition games] will tell us a lot."
The Montreal-born Leroux worked in long relief for the Pittsburgh Pirates last September after converting to a starter at AAA.
Canada also boasts 21-year-old Jameson Taillon, a six-foot-six, 225-pound right-handed prospect of the Pirates whom Baseball America recently ranked the 23rd best prospect in the majors.
"I think our pitching staff is probably better than what we had in ’09," said Whitt, without naming the likes of Mike Johnson, Chris Begg and Vince Perkins. "Our offence, if [Cincinnati Reds star Joey] Votto plays, [along with Justin] Morneau and [Michael] Saunders, those are quality hitters."
Votto, the National League MVP in 2010 and career .316 hitter, was named to Canada’s WBC roster on Feb. 21. But as of March 1 wasn’t sure he would play, saying "I'm still trying to get my legs under me," at spring training. The Toronto-born first baseman had two knee surgeries last season that cost him 50 games.
One player who will be in the middle of Canada’s batting order is Justin Morneau, the Minnesota Twins’ first baseman who has participated in the previous two WBC tournaments. The 31-year-old native of New Westminster, B.C., missed much of the 2010 and 2011 seasons with post-concussion symptoms and other injuries following surgeries to his neck, left knee and right foot.
"I would say Morneau is going to be the leader of this ball club," said Whitt. "Everyone is going to circle around him because of his experience, not only in international play, but what he’s done at the major league level.
Whitt also said fans should keep their eyes on a couple of Canadian players set to compete in their first WBC: first baseman Jimmy Van Ostrand and Phillies outfield prospect Tyson Gillies.
Several players were unavailable to Whitt, whether they chose not to represent Canada or are recovering from injury, including catcher Russell Martin, starting pitchers Ryan Dempster, Scott Diamond and Jeff Francis along with outfielder Jason Bay. Third baseman Brett Lawrie withdrew from the tournament on Thursday because of a strained rib.
"I’m very proud of the team we’ve put together," Whitt said. "I’m confident we’ll go out and give it our best effort. I’ll guarantee that.
"Canada doesn’t have a big depth pool [of players] so if all of our players are not playing, it makes it a little more difficult because we’re going against all-star teams like Venezuela, the United States and Mexico.
"I’ll take our guys because of the fact they play the game aggressively with heart," added Whitt, "and leave it all on the field. When they do that, I can accept whatever the results are."
Japan won both WBC events in 2006 and 2009.
Let the games begin.
Besides standard baseball rules, fans need to be aware of the following:
- All games are played with a designated hitter.
- There is a mercy rule but it does not apply in the semifinal and final rounds. A game will be called if a team is leading by 10 or more runs when the opposition has hit in at least seven innings or if the leading team is ahead by 15 or more runs when the opposing team has batted in a minimum five innings.
- Should a game reach the 13th inning, all teams will begin the inning with runners on first and second base.
- A pitcher can stay in the game if he has reached his limit in the middle of an at-bat, but must exit the game after the at-bat is complete.
Other pitching rules
A pitcher cannot pitch until:
- a minimum of four days have passed since he last pitched, if he threw 50 or more pitches when he last pitched;
- a minimum of one day has passed since he last pitched, if he threw 30 or more pitches when he last pitched;
- a minimum of one day has passed since any second consecutive day on which the pitcher pitched.