Two weeks ago I traveled to Phoenix, Arizona to take in the games of Pool D of the 2013 World Baseball Classic. I had been to two World Baseball Classic games before (in 2009) when they were held at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. The Canada/USA game had the most electric atmosphere of any baseball gave I had ever attended – save for Game 6 of the 1993 World Series. Needless to say, I was eagerly anticipating that same type of atmosphere again.
Game 1 featured Canada vs. Team Italy. Canada was eager to avenge an embarrassing 6-2 defeat at the hands of Italy in the 2009 Classic – a loss that eliminated the Canadians from the tournament. Little did I know that this game was about to be an embarrassment of epic proportions.
Before I go any further, a little background information. Leading up to the World Baseball Classic, I published an article that speculated on what Team Canada’s lineup could look like. This was a best case scenario to be sure. As the Classic neared, many of Canada’s best players began to drop out due to injury, trying to secure a job on a big league team, or…. other reasons. This list includes: Ryan Dempster, Jason Bay, Russell Martin, George Kottaras, Rich Harden, Erik Bedard, Jeff Francis, Scott Diamond, Jesse Crain and Brett Lawrie. With that said, all was not lost. Other players were given an opportunity to prove themselves: Jameson Taillon, Taylor Green, Cale Iorg, Chris Robinson and Chris Leroux were all thrust into starting roles. Some made the most of their opportunity; others didn’t.
The game vs. Italy was a massacre, plain and simple. Following the 14-4 mercy loss, Canadian fans at the game were quick to blame the missing Canadian “star” players, the lacklustre umpiring by home-plate ump Brian Knight, the fact that only four of Italy’s starting nine were actually born in Italy, the list goes on…..
In reality, it was a perfect storm of broken bat singles for Italy, a lack of control from Canadian pitching, as well as holes in the Canadian lineup that resulted in an inability to capitalize with runners in scoring position. Add the poor managerial decisions by Ernie Whitt that made this game such an embarrassment and there’s really not much to be gleaned from Canada’s loss. But I have a few observations.
Firstly, let’s talk about those players thrust into starting roles. Milwaukee Brewers prospect Taylor Green filled in capably for the injured Brett Lawrie at third base. Green played steady defense and held his own at the plate. After Russell Martin’s departure, minor league backup catcher Chris Robinson was given the starting role. He played terrific defense and did everything that was asked of him – including being asked inexplicably to bunt numerous times by manager Ernie Whitt. Robinson performed admirably in spite of his limitations.
The same can not be said for Cale Iorg. Iorg, a Detroit Tigers farmhand, got the nod over Team Canada veteran Jonathan Malo to start at shortstop. While the excuse can be made that Iorg was playing hurt for much of his career, the fact remains that over his past three seasons, Iorg has posted consecutive OBPs of .251, .245 and .193. Malo, on the other hand, is a veteran of international competition as a member of Team Canada and has put up consistently better numbers than Iorg has throughout his minor league career. Defensively, there is no comparison. Malo is slick with the glove while Iorg is clumsy and error-prone. It’s not Iorg’s fault that he was flung into the fire; this is a failing of manager Ernie Whitt.
In the game vs. Italy, Iorg overthrew a routine grounder that almost landed in the seats beyond 1st base. In addition, he repeatedly showed that he is unable to keep the ball in his glove – on flips from 2nd baseman Pete Orr or throws from catcher Chris Robinson.
Offensively, Iorg was overmatched. In an at-bat against NPB pitcher Alex Maestri, Iorg was fooled BADLY on a mediocre changeup. Iorg was finished his swing before the ball had even entered the strike zone. On the bright side, Iorg DID scorch a single into right field, albeit off a slop-throwing left-handed Italian pitcher. It was his only hit of the tournament.
Secondly, Ernie Whitt is a bona-fide mad man. He continually extinguished rallies through the use of sacrifice bunts. In the 4th inning and Team Canada down by four runs with runners on 1st and 2nd, Whitt had right-hander Chris Robinson bunt against left-handed pitcher Chris Cooper to move the runners over. That brought up two left-handed hitters in Adam Loewen and Pete Orr. They struck out and popped out respectively. This is a pattern he continued throughout the tournament, as well as Whitt’s reluctance to pinch hit for the anemic Iorg and Robinson until it was too late.
The 10-3 win vs. Mexico was much more enjoyable, in spite of the game being marred by a bench-clearing brawl. Led by Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Chris Leroux, Canada’s pitching staff was virtually lights-out. At the same time, Canada’s offense finally contributed with clutch hits (Canada hit .500 with RISP). The Seattle Mariners’ Michael Saunders was a stud, going 4 for 4 with two doubles, two runs scored, a walk and a stolen base.
Defensively, Canada’s centre-fielder Tyson Gillies made an outstanding throw home to nab Karim Garcia at the plate. However, Cale Iorg was up to his old tricks again. Joey Votto was erroneously charged with a throwing error when he threw to Iorg at 2B to initiate a double-play. While the throw was high, Iorg inexplicably opted to stay on the bag while the throw sailed over his head instead of jumping to catch the ball and preventing it from sailing into the outfield.
With all that said, this game was defined by the bench clearing brawl. After Canada’s mercy-rule loss to Italy the previous day, Canada needed to score as many runs as it possibly could, not only to stave off elimination in case of a win vs. USA, but to avoid finishing last in the pool and have to qualify yet again for the 2017 tournament. The reason for this is the Classic’s flawed run-differential rule. In the event of a tie between two teams, the amount of runs a team has scored vs. the amount they have allowed is used as the tie-break. As a result of this rule, Canada broke baseball’s “unwritten code” when Chris Robinson layed down a sacrifice bunt late in the game with Canada ahead 9-3. With a 6-run lead late in the game, Mexico took this as a personal insult and interpreted the bunt as Canada trying to show them up.
In particular, third baseman Luis Cruz motioned to pitcher Arnold Leon to plunk the next batter – in this case Rene Tosoni:
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As a result of the plunking, a bench-clearing brawl ensued:
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Here is the video I took from the stands:
Near the end of the video you can hear chants of ‘culero.’ Google it to find out what it means.
Mexican manager Rick Renteria acknowledged afterward that bunting with a six-run lead would have been inappropriate during a regular-season game, but they understood why Robinson did it in this context.
“Maybe I needed to do a better job of explaining (the rules) to my players,” Renteria said. “I thought I had. I thought I had it understood. But when you get into the heat of the battle of playing the game — a lot of these guys are used to playing in their respective leagues or clubs — when that happens, in that moment, he just lost sight of it. That’s all.”
As I said before, this brawl really marred an otherwise enjoyable game. Instead of the media talking about how good a game it was, only the brawl was mentioned. The atmosphere was electric and the Mexican fans in the crowd are some of the most passionate, enthusiastic and knowledgeable fans I have ever come across. The brawl definitely put a damper on the fun that was happening between and amongst the fans – most (both Canadian and Mexican) were not aware of the run differential rule and the motive behind the bunt and many fights in the stands took place.
In any event, this brawl certainly dispelled the myth that the World Baseball Classic is an unimportant tournament that players don’t really care about. While it is true that many players choose not to participate, those that do are very passionate and care deeply.
It was “do or die” for Canada in its final game vs. the USA. With a win, Canada would advance to the 2nd round; a loss and Canada would be eliminated. Again, it was evident that players were extremely passionate about the WBC. Canadian reliever Phillippe Aumont had this to say:
“From the first pitch until … the ninth inning, I had butterflies the whole game. It was a do or die, and it was so much fun – everyone getting up and cheering, high-fiving, all that stuff. I threw that seventh inning and I came in and I was still shaking.”
While the game didn’t have the same electric atmosphere as the 2009 match-up, it was clear that Canadian fans outnumbered American fans, even though the game was being played on American soil. With an announced attendance of 22,425, I would estimate that at least 14,000 of those fans were Canadian.
The starting pitcher for Team Canada was Jameson Taillon – a 21-year old Pittsburgh Pirates farmhand who had never pitched above double-A professionally. With a high-90s fastball and three pitches that are considered “plus,” Taillon mowed through the star-studded American lineup for four innings, allowing one run on four hits and striking out three. Career minor-leaguer Dustin Molleken and the aforementioned Aumont followed Taillon’s stellar performance with three scoreless frames. Justin Morneau sparked the Canadian offense with a double and the studly Saunders cashed him in with a 2-run home run to give the Canadians an early 2-0 lead. Canada wasn’t able to keep the stacked US lineup down, allowing two runs two innings later to tie it up. The US team piled it on in the 8th and 9th innings to secure the 9-4 victory. With Craig Kimbrel on to close it out in the 9th, the game was a foregone conclusion.
While Team Canada was not expected to win vs. Team USA, they were put at even more of a disadvantage due to Ernie Whitt’s head-scratching decisions. Jameson Taillon – who was cruising all game – was lifted after 52 pitches, well below the WBC’s imposed limit on pitchers. In addition, Team Canada was trailing by only a single run after eight innings AND they were the home team. With John Axford available to pitch out of the pen, Whitt turned to Scott Mathieson instead. Not that Mathieson is a bad pitcher by any means, but he has only 44 career innings pitched at the Major League Level and currently plies his trade in the Japanese League. John Axford has 106 saves at the MLB level and 264 strikeouts in 208 MLB innings pitched. It’s clear who the best option out of the pen is.
Whitt continued his mind-numbingly frustrating penchant for giving away outs via the bunt. In the bottom of the 8th inning, left-handed Michael Saunders came up with a runner on base and a right-handed pitcher on the mound. If Saunders had homered, the game would have been tied. Instead, Saunders bunted – albeit for a single. With the anemic Chris Robinson, Adam Loewen and Pete Orr due up after Saunders (of course, none of them were pinch-hit for) it wasn’t the brightest decision.
Regardless, Canada’s inability to advance to the 2nd round of any of the three iterations of the three World Baseball Classics is in no way a reflection of the strength of the Canadian baseball program. In fact, none of the successes or failures of the participating nations is an accurate indicator of how well a country plays the game of baseball; neither does the winner of the tournament prove which nation is the best at baseball. It can’t possibly be a reliable gauge of the baseball talent level of a nation – not with the lax player-eligibility rules, the timing of the tournament (which prevents many players from electing to participate), and the small sample size of games.
Instead, the goal of the World Baseball Classic is to internationalize the game. From my first-hand experience in Spain, I can tell you that baseball is making strong in-roads there. Brazil’s baseball program is growing by leaps and bounds, as is New Zealand’s. With Puerto Rico in the final, baseball is again responsible for filling Hiram Bithorn Stadium to capacity after a period of dormancy. And judging from the amount of hits alone on Mop up Duty from countries all over the world on our World Baseball Classic Country Profiles Page, I’d say it’s working. More importantly, it’s a whole lot of fun to watch.
Featured image photo credit: Callum Hughson / mopupduty.com