5 Questions: Canada's Chris Leroux brings heat to WBC

Pittsburgh Pirates pitching hopeful Chris Leroux talks to CBCSports.ca about working out with a personal trainer for the first time during the off-season, the timing of the World Baseball Classic and his early impressions of the Canadian squad.

Pirates pitcher regains lost velocity

Pirates relief pitcher Chris Leroux, who's playing for Canada at the World Baseball Classic, says the velocity on his fastball is near 2011 form when it sat in the 92-97 mile-per-hour range. The pitch dipped to 89-94 mph last season after he returned from a strained pectoral muscle. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

Chris Leroux finishes a World Baseball Classic workout with his Canadian teammates and then turns down a chance to scout an upcoming opponent.

The Pittsburgh Pirates hopeful is scheduled to pitch against Mexico on Saturday (2:30 p.m. ET) in Canada’s second Pool D round-robin game in Phoenix.

The Mexicans are led at the plate by cleanup hitter Adrian Gonzalez of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who singled twice and drew two walks in a 6-5 loss to Italy on Thursday.

Leroux has faced the slugging first baseman once in his major league career, walking Gonzalez during a 2010 regular season game after starting the at-bat with two strikes.

"I think he’s a guy I can get [on the inner half of the plate]. He likes to drive the ball the other way," said Leroux of Gonzalez, who hit 40 home runs for San Diego in 2009 but just 18 last season. "The book on him is pound him [inside] and see what happens.

"I pitch everybody pretty much the same. The only thing I look at with hitters is if he’s a first-pitch swinger and if I can get him [out with an inside pitch]."

Leroux, 28, arrived in Arizona late Wednesday night after blanking the opposition in his first three spring training outings (four innings, five strikeouts) out of the Pirates bullpen. The Montreal-born hurler is vying for a long relief role.

Leroux said the velocity on his fastball is near 2011 form when it sat in the 92-97 mile-per-hour range. The pitch dipped to 89-94 mph last season after he returned from a strained pectoral muscle.

He talked to CBCSports.ca about working out with a personal trainer for the first time during the off-season, the timing of the WBC and his early impressions of the Canadian squad.

1. You worked with a personal trainer at Fischer Sports in Phoenix over the winter, focusing on core strength and your legs. Where have you seen the benefits at spring training?

Leroux: I just see the benefits in how I feel, how my arm feels. I’m not as sore in the morning when I wake up and I have more energy.

In 2011, I had pretty good success in the big leagues. I think in that off-season I didn’t necessarily not work but I feel I didn’t train as hard as I should have trained and I think that hurt me in 2012. I got hurt, my velocity was down and obviously I didn’t have the season I wanted to have.

That could’ve been the best thing ever for me because it gave me a kick in the butt. Now I know that baseball is a fragile game and I can lose it at any time.

2. Canada’s Ryan Dempster wasn’t interested in pitching at the WBC, saying it wasn’t something he should be doing physically as he prepares for the major league season. Should Major League Baseball move the WBC to the four-day all-star break in July every four years?

There’s always going to be people saying it’s not good timing, it’s not good this, it’s not good that. If you play it after the season people would say they’re tired. If you play it before the season, people say we’re not ready, it’s too early. If you play it at the all-star break, people are going to say we want those four days [off] with our family.

There’s always going to be people who have a negative outlook on the tournament, so if you want to play, play. If you don’t, don’t. It’s as simple as that. No one’s putting a gun to your head.

3. You have combined with WBC teammates Shawn Hill and Scott Mathieson for 52 starts in the major leagues. Some people would say that’s not near enough experience to shut down some of the better lineups at the tournament. How would you answer those critics?

It’s not like we have to go deep into ball games. Mathieson was a starter when he was in [Philadelphia]. Obviously, he didn’t stay healthy and it didn’t work out but he’s got a great arm and great stuff and showed that in Japan last year [when he helped Japan's Yomiuri Giants win the Nippon Professional Baseball championship].

We all have great arms. I think [people] just need to relax a little bit. They should save their skepticism until for after this weekend and then they can do all the blogging that they want.

4. Canada entered the WBC with a solid bullpen, led by closer John Axford and set-up men Jim Henderson and Phillippe Aumont. Offensively, the Canadians have Joey Votto, Justin Morneau and Michael Saunders as middle-of-the-order hitters. What are your early impressions of this group?

Obviously, our core group of guys is solid. You’ve got Morneau, Saunders, Votto. Our bullpen’s really good. I don’t know how many Canadians know about Jim Henderson or Phillippe Aumont but they’re two guys that are solid in the bullpen. They’ll certainly know about them after the weekend.

It comes down to me [and fellow starting pitchers] Shawn [Hill] and [Scott] Mathieson and how we throw. The first three innings to any game are important. If we get things started on the right foot and show Mexico and Italy maybe we’ll have a chance to go to Miami [for the second round].

Canada has a lot of left-handed hitters and that’s tough on any pitcher. If you have six or seven lefties in your lineup, that’s going to be a tough matchup for a right-handed pitcher. I like our chances, as long as the starters can hand the ball off to the bullpen.

5. Jameson Taillon is a 21-year-old prospect of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a six-foot-six Canadian right-hander that is probably going to draw a lot of attention at the WBC. Baseball America recently ranked him the 23rd best prospect in the majors. What impresses you about this youngster?

He throws hard, between 94 and 98 [miles per hour] and he’s got a tremendous curveball. I wouldn’t be surprised in four years if he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball.

He’s definitely a mature guy for 21 and I’m glad he’s on this team. There’s no question in my mind that he deserved to be here.