Big games vs. U.S. nothing new for Ernie Whitt's Team Canada as Olympic berth on the line
Former Jay has history of international success as manager of national team
It's still regarded as one of the greatest Canadian national team baseball victories — a stunning defeat of the United States at the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg.
Down 6-3 to the Americans in the 11th inning, Canadian Stubby Clapp came to the plate with the bases loaded and two out. Clapp, a journeyman who had just 25 at-bats in Major League Baseball, worked the count full before lifting a shallow pop fly to left field for what should have been an easy out.
But confusion among the U.S. fielders allowed the ball to fall to the grass and score the winning run, setting off a raucous celebration as the Canadian team rushed out of the dugout and the Winnipeg crowd went wild.
The win catapulted the Canadians toward an eventual bronze medal and put Canada's baseball program on the map. In 2015, at the Pan Am Ballpark in Ajax, Ont., they followed that up with another walk-off win against the U.S., this time for gold.
Ernie Whitt, the former Blue Jay and Detroit native who has been a staple with Canadian baseball for years, was the manager of both those teams and has had a front row seat to all of the drama.
Whitt is once again the manager of the Canadian team going into a pivotal baseball game against the U.S. Canada's Olympic qualifying chances are hanging in the balance at the WBSC Baseball Americas Olympic Qualifier in Florida.
And their next opponent is the United States Friday night. It's another must-win game for Canada.
"A lot of these guys, this could be their last opportunity to achieve this goal of going to the Olympics," Whitt told CBC Sports. "If that's not enough momentum for you to accomplish this, then something is wrong.
"I don't think you'll see us come out flat again. We know what we have to do. You don't get this opportunity all the time and I think our kids will respond."
Canada has advanced to what they're calling the Super Round by virtue of victories over Colombia and Cuba, the latter a shocking 6-5 upset which ended the baseball powerhouse's Olympic chances.
But after opening with two victories, Canada came out flat against Venezuela on Wednesday, losing 5-0. It was a crucial game and loss because of the complicated format.
WATCH | Canada dealt 1st WBSC loss by Venezuela in Group B finale:
Four teams are advancing to the Super Round — Canada, Venezuela, USA and Dominican Republic. Canada will now play the U.S. on Friday and Dominican Republic on Saturday. Both games will be streamed live on cbcsports.ca.
The team with the best record in the Super Round gets the lone Olympic berth available at this tournament. The second- and third-place finishers go to the final Olympic qualifier later this month in Mexico. In the Super Round, teams don't face the other team that advanced from their group. Instead, the result from their group-stage meeting carries over. So Canada starts the round with an 0-1 record because of its loss to Venezuela.
It puts the Canadians in a must-win situation in its remaining games, but even if Canada does lose to the Americans on Friday, Saturday's game against the Dominican Republic remains key. The second- and third-place teams qualify for a last-chance Olympic qualifier later this month in Mexico. Four teams will compete iwith the winner getting the last Olympic spot.
"We need to win at least one game out of it," Whitt said. "It's something myself and the coaches have to do and some of our veteran players. We have to step up. These guys know that.
"Some of them are getting long in the tooth and want to be a part of [the Olympics.]"
Canada has twice competed in the Olympics, in 2004 and 2008, the last time the sport was included in the Games before being reinstated for Tokyo.
Whitt managed the Canadian team at the 2004 Athens Olympics, losing the bronze medal to Japan. He has also guided the squad to four Pan Am Games medals, including two gold.
He reflects fondly upon that last Olympic experience and badly wants to get Canada back to the Games one more time.
"It was one of the greatest events I've ever attended, 2004 in Athens. You're there representing your country with the best athletes in the world. It's something you cherish and it doesn't come around that often," Whitt said.
"Our boys will be ready and fired up to accomplish this."