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Canada mulls options for pitching staff, lineup after better effort in final WBC tune-up

PEORIA, Ariz. – Now comes the download for the Canadian national team, a time to assess what transpired in a pair of exhibition games and try to set up the roster as effectively as possible for the World Baseball Classic.

A 5-3 loss to the Seattle Mariners on Thursday afternoon, set up by three unearned runs off former Yomiuri Giants closer Scott Mathieson, closed out the period of experimentation with another afternoon of mixed results.

Andrew Albers and Phillippe Aumont – like Mathieson, along with John Axford and Adam Loewen on Wednesday returning to action after long absences – delivered solid innings. Fellow relievers Indigo Diaz, Cade Smith and Ben Onyshko also posted zeroes, flashing competitive stuff. Hard-hitting Chicago Cubs prospect Owen Caissie continued to push for regular at-bats in the tournament by pounding a two-run homer to centre that put Canada up 3-2 in the seventh.

The defence was tighter than it was in Wednesday’s 11-7 loss to the Chicago Cubs, too, in spite of the error that led to the pivotal Mariners rally capped by Kaden Polcovich’s two-run shot.

Still, mapping out how to work through the tournament opener Sunday against Great Britain – when Cal Quantrill starts – and three games beyond is far from clear.

“I thought our pitchers did well, I thought we were a little bit sharper,” said manager Ernie Whitt. “We haven’t finalized anything.”

Toronto Blue Jays utilityman Otto Lopez was in the leadoff spot against the Mariners ahead of Freddie Freeman and Tyler O’Neill, pushing Edouard Julien down to fourth with Abraham Toro fifth. Along with Oakland Athletics prospect Denzel Clarke batting seventh, that allowed Canada to alternate between left- and right-handed hitters all the way down to the bottom two spots.

“I just wanted to balance out the lineup so that they can’t bring a lefty in and face three lefties in a row,” said Whitt. “There’s a lot of teetering on that, too, so we’ll see.”

The likelihood is that Canada starts Jacob Robson in left field, Jared Young at DH and employs a platoon in right of Clarke and Caissie, who’s looked mature beyond his 20 years and showed the kind of raw power that plays when he took Prelander Berroa deep.

With no prior history against the Mariners righty and no scouting report to lean on, Caissie’s approach was, “OK, what is he throwing on the board and try to react off that pretty much.”

He saw fastballs at 95-96, decided to hunt the heater, got one middle in and crushed it, adjusting after earlier strikeouts against Marco Gonzales and Paul Sewald. That maturity at the plate gives him a chance to be factor when the games count for real.

“In my first game against the Cubs, I thought I had really good ABs, I saw a lot of pitches, worked deep into the count, things didn’t go my way,” said Caissie. “In this game, my first AB, I struck out on three pitches, I didn’t really like that. Second AB, Sewald was just riding good fastballs up on me and I was a little late. So my third AB I was trying to be a little quicker and a little bit earlier in my timing and I got a good pitch to hit. Really it’s trying to be on time and slow and early with my move.”

After starter Rob Zastryzny, due to start the first-round finale against Mexico, allowed two runs in two workmanlike innings, Albers came on to deliver a clean third, striking out two batters in the process.

The 37-year-old lefty from North Battleford, Sask., felt good about the outing, his first since closing out the 2021 season with the Minnesota Twins. Coming out of the lockout last year, he agreed to terms on a minor-league deal with the Mariners but they pulled out when a physical identified an edema in his elbow.

A year of rest and the reassurance of a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews that “if I can keep the extension in my elbow I should be fine” set him up for a third Classic appearance. If things continue to go well, perhaps some work afterward, too.

“That’s always the hope but there are some roadblocks to that,” said Albers. “Obviously I’m a little bit older. The stuff in and of itself isn’t going to wow anybody. So it’s an uphill battle from the get-go when you don’t throw 95. But certainly, if an opportunity came up, it would be something I’d love to try and give it one more go.”

Aumont isn’t looking for anything more than some innings at the Classic, although the fact that he pulled himself off his 90-hectare farm north of Gatineau, Que., shook off a fractured coccyx, or tailbone, suffered while playing beer-league hockey in January and pulled 92 out of his back pocket bodes well for the six-foot-seven righty.

Looking nothing like someone who hadn’t been in a real game since attending Blue Jays camp on a minor-league deal in 2020, the 11th overall pick in the 2007 draft worked around a two-out walk in a scoreless fourth, with a strikeout for good measure.

“It’s been pretty fun to just be like, OK, I can still throw everything for a strike and I can still hit both sides of the plate – it’s been three years,” said Aumont. “That’s the cool part about it. I’m still amazed at myself that I could do that.”

How best to utilize him and everyone else is now the priority for the Canadians.

The two exhibition losses revealed both strengths and weaknesses. Optimizing matchups within the tournament’s complicated usage rules will be essential. Three wins in four games takes them to the second round. Two wins give them a shot at advancing. As the early games in the Asian half of the tournament bracket show, anything can happen.

“I like our team,” said Albers. “I like the talent that we’ve got here. And I think we’ve got a chance to do something special. Obviously, we’re going to have to catch a couple of breaks like everybody else, but I think we’ll be very competitive.”

Added Caissie: “We’re going to compete. People always say that Canadians can’t really play baseball. But I think we’re going to really surprise people.”

Which people say that?

“General media. Definitely not Canadians,” said Caissie. “But there’s always a narrative that we only play hockey. We want to all show them that we can play ball.”

Starting Sunday, they’re going to get the chance to do just that.


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