It’s the game that still haunts Ernie Whitt.
Four years ago, Canada had hopes of advancing to the second round of the World Baseball Classic. The team had home-field advantage at Toronto’s Rogers Centre and were optimistic after losing a close game to the United States.
There was every reason to believe Canada would cruise past Italy — then the offence went cold.
“We knew that our pitching was going to be so-so, but we thought our offence would carry our club and we only scored two runs against Italy,” said Whitt, Canada’s longtime manager who was also with the team at the 2006 WBC.
Canada’s hopes of getting beyond the first round were dashed following the 6-2 loss to Italy.
“It was disappointing,” Whitt said during a recent interview. “I liked the way we played against the United States, I thought it was a very intense game, World Series-type game, fans getting into it, back and forth, back and forth.”
“You learn from your losses,” Whitt added. “I think I learned a little bit and so did our whole staff.”
Brett Lawrie remembers how difficult it was to watch Canada’s loss from the bench. The Toronto Blue Jays third baseman was just 19 in 2009 and only saw action as a pinch runner.
“I didn’t really want to go back to spring training real quick,” said Lawrie. “I wanted to stay with my boys and see how far we could take it. It was just unfortunate. But there’s always another one, so we’re fortunate enough that we all get to do it again and tomorrow’s a new day and we’re all excited to get this one started.”
The Italy loss will be weighing on Whitt and the rest of Canada ahead of the start to Pool D play. A rematch with the Italians is set for Friday in Scottsdale, Ariz., followed by Mexico at Chase Field in Phoenix on Saturday. Canada ends the first round against the powerhouse United States team, also in Phoenix, next Sunday.
“We have to win our first game. We have to win our second game. Those are our priorities at this time,” said Whitt. “Whatever it takes to do, that’s what we are going to do.”
Upsets are common at the international tournament. Canada had one of its own in ’06, beating the U.S. 8-6. In 2009, the Netherlands stunned the Dominican Republic with two victories to move into the second round.
Whitt kept that in mind after the loss to Italy, pointing out Canada nearly fell to South Africa in ’06. At some point, he said, Canada will win when no one expects them to.
“If you have a chance to play a team more than one game, chances are the better team’s going to come out,” said Whitt. “When it’s a one-game set, anything can happen.”
Canada heads into the WBC with a lineup that features established veterans, a bolstered bullpen and a few surprises. Among the major-leaguers, Minnesota Twins star Justin Morneau returns as well as Chicago White Sox reliever Jesse Crain and Lawrie.
Milwaukee Brewers closer John Axford is new to the team and should give Canada a capable option to finish games. Michael Saunders of the Seattle Mariners is also making his national team debut and will provide a stable presence in the outfield.
There are a few glaring holes in the lineup. Canada has no ace starting pitcher, shortstop is once again a weakness, and minor-leaguers Chris Robinson and John Suomi will platoon at catcher after veteran Russell Martin opted not to play in the tournament.
Canada will have to wait at least a couple more days to find out whether Cincinnati Reds slugger Joey Votto will join the team. Votto, a National League MVP in 2010, missed 48 games last season with a knee injury. He was Canada’s best hitter in ’09, but has lingering concerns about his knee and won’t commit to the team until just prior to the first game against Italy.
Votto won’t have to go far if he joins Canada — his teammates are working out at the Reds’ spring training facility in Goodyear, Ariz., where they will play exhibition games against Milwaukee on Tuesday and Cincinnati on Wednesday.
Baseball Canada’s Greg Hamilton, the director of national teams and architect of Canada’s roster, said he is optimistic Votto will join the team. Losing the Toronto native would be a major blow to Canada’s offence, a point not lost on Whitt.
“That would hurt our lineup,” said Whitt. “Would that kill us? It would make things a little more difficult, but it gives an opportunity for someone else to come in and try to fill that spot.”
Lawrie likes the look of the roster as it is. With a resume that includes time on the Canadian junior team and the 2008 Olympic squad, Lawrie points out the squad has plenty of experience.
“I feel like we have a lot more guys now that have been through professional baseball,” said Lawrie. “It’s different because our pitching and what-not last time was a different boat. Now we have a lot of guys that have been around the game and that’s important because we understand what professional baseball is about and this tournament is about.”
Lawrie says the 2013 edition of Team Canada is “a little more special” than four years ago.