Canada sees bright future despite being eliminated by Mexico at WBC

PHOENIX – The Canadians gave themselves a chance to move on at this World Baseball Classic, in control of their own fate on the final day of pool play, with no need to wait for help and hope the tiebreaker math landed right.

Really, given the star power on the sidelines due to injury, insurance issues, or club situations, how many people not wearing those red and white jerseys with the oddly small lettering on the front believed they’d even do that?

“I think we got a little bit of respect from other countries,” said Edouard Julien, one of the top performers in the opening round, “and we’re going to be back in four years.”

In that sense, taking the field Wednesday afternoon at Chase Field for a win-and-in clash with Mexico on the backs of emergent talents like Julien, Otto Lopez, Bo Naylor and Owen Caissie, steadied by the steely determination of Tyler O’Neill, was an accomplishment in itself.

That’s of cold comfort now, after a 10-3 loss to the Mexicans before a crowd of 17,245 left their hopes of a quarter-final berth dependent on a Colombian upset of the powerhouse Americans, with enough offence to skew the runs against-by-outs-recorded quotient in their favour.

“It would take almost a miracle,” to advance said manager Ernie Whitt and they didn’t get one as the United States joined Mexico in the quarter-finals at 3-1 after a 3-2 victory over Colombia (2-2), which finished fourth in Pool C behind Canada (2-2) based on head-to-head record.

“I’m proud of every guy in that room,” said Whitt. “They played the game the way it was supposed to be played. They played with pride and passion. What more can you ask for?”

Unlike the 0-3 showing at the last World Baseball Classic, there’s a through line from here to a deeper run in 2026, when the next edition of the tournament is tentatively slated.

Freddie Freeman, who missed the finale after tweaking his hamstring and would have been out had they advanced, and O’Neill might be elder statesmen by then. But Cal Quantrill, whose rough start in the opener of Great Britain was a leading indicator of just what a wild ride this would be, should be back and maybe big-leaguers like Josh Naylor, Mike Soroka, Nick Pivetta, Jameson Taillon, Jordan Romano and Zach Pop are available, too.

Mitch Bratt, who at 19, took on the Americans in a learn-the-hard-way outing, should be in the majors by then, too. Julien, Lopez, Naylor, Caissie, Abraham Toro and Denzel Clarke are among several young players who could make up a strong core. Noah Skirrow looked to be on a big-league trajectory during his five dominant innings against Colombia. Relievers Matt Brash, Curtis Taylor, Trevor Brigden and Indigo Diaz all had nice moments out of the bullpen. A third Naylor brother, the draft-eligible Myles, and big-armed Toronto Blue Jays prospect Adam Macko might be in the mix by then, too.

Where 2017 was a definitive end for one generation of Canadian national team, 2023 feels much more like a promising beginning for another.

“It’s incredible,” said Quantrill. “I think we surpassed everyone’s expectations except for our own. This is what we thought we were capable of. I’m proud of the way that everyone’s handled this week. We’ve had guys put in moments that I don’t know if they’ve ever seen before and performed well up and down the order. We faced some adversity. We lost, obviously, a big piece in Freddie. It’s been really fun to watch.”

Added O’Neill, who reached base in 13 of his 18 plate appearances, drove in four runs and scored five more while embodying the grit and leadership Canadians are known for: “You definitely see improvement in all aspects. Offence came alive for a couple of games, pitched the ball really well for a couple of games. There were some nail-biting innings here and there and the boys were able to bear down and get something done. Overall, this is a great showing from us I would say. It’s tough losing Freddie the other day but the rest of us have to pick up the slack and just do a better job next time.”

A few breaks here and there and it might have continued this weekend.

Starter Rob Zastryzny was ruled to have hit Randy Arozarena on a full-count fastball in the first inning, even though replays suggested the Tampa Bay Rays catalyst fouled off the pitch and played up the contact with his hand. The Canadians challenged and the review determined otherwise. An out later, Joey Meneses’ roller found a black hole in the infield, Zastryzny balked the runners into scoring position and Rowdy Tellez dunked a single into right to open the scoring.

“It’s tough first hitter of the game to ask for an appeal, but we were told that the ball hit the bat,” said Whitt. “I even had a look at it, it looked like it did. So we took that opportunity. … That was their decision and we go by it.”

The Canadians loaded the bases with none out in the bottom half but only plated one run on an Otto Lopez base hit, Toro having to freeze at second to ensure the ball touched green.

Maybe, with a clean top of the first and a crooked number right after, things would have played out differently.

Instead, light-hitting Austin Barnes worked the first of his three walks out of the nine-hole, an unacceptable total, in the second before an Arozarena double-plated him. After Naylor’s solo shot in the fourth made it a one-run game again, the Mexicans blew the game open with a four-run sixth, keyed by Arozarena’s three-run double.

“If one or two ball falls differently, it’s a different ballgame,” said veteran lefty Andrew Albers, who left behind a pair of baserunners during the sixth. “I don’t think they hit the ball hard. Blooper that gets down to put guys on second and third. Arozarena’s ground ball, if that’s at somebody it’s a double play and it wasn’t hit great. That’s just how the game goes. At the end of the day, we gave them too many baserunners to begin with and that’s the difference.”

Julien, the fast-rising Minnesota Twins prospect a force throughout the four games, hit his second homer of the tournament in the seventh, but that only cut the Mexico advantage to 9-3.

A Tellez solo shot in the top of the eighth promptly pushed it back up.

Ultimately, Mexico, with nine big-leaguers in the lineup and a pitching staff filled with dudes getting outs in the majors, just had more weapons than the Canadians did.

“We showed everybody that yeah, we have a younger team, we don’t have the big names all the other teams had, but we were able to play with them,” said Julien. “We have a bunch of guys in their 20s here and in four years we’re going to be more mature. That’s going to help us win some ball games. Hopefully, everybody stays healthy, hopefully everybody gets better. But this tournament was fun. I’m happy about what the team accomplished. We won two games and we were close to moving on to the second round. It was a great experience.”

Consider that in the finale alone, Canada relied on Phillippe Aumont, who last pitched competitively in the spring of 2020 and literally came off the farm for this, and Albers, who failed a physical last spring to negate a minor-league deal with the Seattle Mariners, to get outs against Mexico.

John Axford, Scott Mathieson and Adam Loewen each made emotional returns to the mound and had nice moments, but that’s why the Canadians had to mix and match their way through the four games.

An 18-8 mercy-rule win over plucky Great Britain (1-3) in which they trailed 3-0 nearly turned their plans upside down. The Americans mercy-ruled them 12-1 in seven innings, which in some ways wasn’t a bad outcome, and then the Canadians pitched their asses off in the 5-0 win over Colombia.

“Once you get down three in the first game of the tournament and the starter is out early, that could have been a really, really big blow,” said pitching coach Denis Boucher. “The hitting picked us up and that helped the pitching staff. Against the U.S., you’re looking at it on paper and it’s not even close. We tried to set our pitchers up for the Colombia and Mexico games and have those good guys available because we knew if we win the first one and the last two, then we’re moving on.”

They fell one game short and their chances are now down to the whims of fate.


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