Michael Saunders is finally getting his chance to show off the power Canada was missing at the last World Baseball Classic.
Shoulder surgery meant Saunders had to watch from home as Canada's offence faded at the 2009 tournament. Now healthy and with the team, the Seattle Mariners' outfielder hit Canada's lone home run in a 7-4 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers in an exhibition game Tuesday.
"I'm really excited. It's always fun to see the guys again," said Saunders, who said he welcomed the chance to make his WBC debut with the team he called "a little fraternity."
"Whether it's WBC or whatever, we feel like we all know each other, we feel like we haven't missed a beat and we have great team chemistry and that's something that's going to help us in this tournament," he added.
Canada used the game to start working out the kinks with opening-round play set to start Friday against Italy. Saunders said he was impressed with Canada's patience at the plate against the Brewers, with 10 walks and just three strikeouts.
"We're going to grind out at-bats for sure," said the Victoria native. "I think on paper we can compete with anybody. We're not coming in a powerhouse, however we're not a team to be forgotten about either."
Rally sinks Milwaukee
A four-run eighth inning provided manager Ernie Whitt and his coaching staff reason to be optimistic moving forward.
Trailing 4-3, Canada loaded the bases before centre-fielder Tyson Gillies tied the game with an RBI single. Brewers reliever Michael Gonzalez then walked shortstop Jonathan Malo to score another run.
Canada added two more when Jimmy Van Ostrand scored second baseman Pete Orr, and Gillies made it 7-4 after touching home on a wild pitch from Gonzalez.
"I think they had good plate appearances and that's what we want," said Whitt. "Again, I look for the three through six hitters and the other guys filling in and doing what they can do to contribute. To me it's a pretty good team."
Outfielder Khris Davis had Milwaukee's lone homer of the game, a deep shot to left-centre field off reliever Andrew Albers that put the Brewers ahead 4-3 in the seventh.
While Canada's offence looked good, the pitching is a work in progress.
Jameson Taillon, the Pittsburgh Pirates prospect making his WBC debut, gave up two runs and two walks with two strikeouts in 2 2/3 innings. Taillon, who was playing with a head cold, will start for Canada against the United States on Sunday.
"I think it sets me up well," said Taillon. "Obviously not my best outing. I would have liked to have a bit better results. ... I'm definitely a little more gassed with than I usually would be."
Shawn Hill, Canada's starter against Italy, was also shaky. Hill walked two batters and hit another to load the bases before Carlos Gomez hit an RBI groundout to tie the game at three. Albers got the win, giving up the homer and three hits with two strikeouts in two innings.
But there were still bright spots in the bullpen. Scott Mathieson pitched 1 1/3 clean innings with two strikeouts. Jim Henderson and closer John Axford, both pitching against their Brewers teammates, kept Milwaukee off the scoreboard through the final two innings.
Whitt said he was particularly impressed with Mathieson's outing.
"He's been over in Japan throwing quite a bit, so I mean that helps out I'm sure," said Whitt. "But yeah, he was definitely looking like he was a lot farther ahead of the hitters than I expected, so it was nice to see."
Canada struck first in the third inning when Milwaukee starter Chris Narveson walked Justin Morneau with the bases loaded.
Milwaukee tied the game in the bottom of the inning after Rickie Weeks hit an RBI double then scored on Carlos Gomez's single. That was the fourth straight hit Taillon allowed, knocking him out of the game in favour of Mathieson.
After Saunders' homer, Tim Smith showed some surprising speed for a designated hitter that paid off in a run to give Canada a 3-2 lead in the fifth. After earning a walk, Smith stole second then took third after an error by Brewers reliever Wily Peralta, who threw wide trying to pick off Smith.
Smith scored after Peralta threw a wild pitch on a 3-0 count that Toronto third baseman Brett Lawrie had to dodge, putting Canada back in the lead.
"Smitty's a good base runner," said Whitt. "They look at him and say he's not that quick, but he's quicker than he looks, he really is."
Canada, which won't have Cincinnati slugger Joey Votto in the lineup until Friday, faces the Reds on Wednesday in another opportunity to prepare for the opening round. Spring training results have little meaning to teams — the loss won't be reflected in Milwaukee's Cactus League standings — but Saunders said it was good for Canada to start from square one with a win.
"Exhibition game or not, winning's a mentality," he said. "We come here to play baseball, we don't come here to lose. Whether it's exhibition or it means something. I understand it's spring training but we'd rather walk into the clubhouse with a 'W' than with a loss."