The road to the 2013 edition of the World Baseball Classic will be a tougher one for the Canadian men's baseball team.
Canada has to qualify for the main draw this time around. A 16-team qualifying round begins this week with the top squad from each four-team pool locking up a spot in next year's Classic.
The Canadian team was relegated after failing to record a victory at the 2009 WBC. Canada will open the modified double-elimination qualifier Thursday against Great Britain at the Armin-Wolf Baseball Arena in Regensburg.
The Czech Republic and host Germany round out the pool.
With the major-league season entering the stretch drive, the Canadian team is loaded with minor leaguers. They are still favoured to advance and should be a confident bunch with 14 players back from the squad that won gold at the 2011 Pan Am Games in Mexico.
"I like the unity that these players have," manager Ernie Whitt said from Germany. "We have a style of play that we play the game hard, we play it with pride and passion and we play the game the way it's supposed to be played.
"We will do whatever it takes to win a ball game."
'Anything can happen'
Whitt is joined by a veteran coaching staff that includes hitting coach Larry Walker, pitching coach Denis Boucher and coach/team director Greg Hamilton. The team was named earlier this month and the players held a short training camp in St. Petersburg, Fla., before flying to Germany on Monday.
"Anything can happen in international ball and that's why you play the game," Whitt said. "We're not taking any team lightly. I guess we are the favourites coming into this pool. But we've played against some teams where we're the underdogs and we've battled them right down to the wire.
"So we know what we have to do."
The 2009 roster included big names like Justin Morneau of New Westminster, B.C., Jason Bay of Trail, B.C., Russell Martin of Chelsea, Que., Brett Lawrie of Langley, B.C., and Toronto's Joey Votto. Only a handful of players on the qualifier roster have major-league experience.
"We're basically bringing a veteran minor-league club down here," Whitt said. "Guys that have played before, played international ball before. If we do qualify, we'll probably have close to a whole new roster playing in the WBC come March."
Panama, South Africa and Taiwan also fell into the qualifying round after failing to win a game in 2009. Other teams hoping to qualify for the 2013 tournament include Brazil, Colombia, France, Israel, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Philippines, Spain and Thailand.
Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., will host the other ongoing pool games. Teams in the two other pools won't start play until mid-November at Rod Carew National Stadium in Panama City and Xinzhuang Stadium in New Taipei City, Taiwan.
Japan won the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006 and successfully defended its title in 2009. Canada did not make it to the second round at either event despite defeating the favoured United States in opening-round action in 2006.
The United States, Australia, China, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico and Venezuela locked up 2013 spots based on their performance four years ago.
Whitt is hopeful his team has what it takes to make it back to the main draw.
"As a manager I basically try to stay out of their way and let them go out and play and try to put them in situations where they can be successful," he said.
First-round dates and venues have not yet been finalized for the 2013 tournament.
Some second-round games will be played at Marlins Park in Miami. AT&T Park in San Francisco will host the semifinals and final.