A victory no one expected

WBC.2006.HeaderArticles

Miracle on grass: Canada beats US at World Baseball Classic

JEFF BLAIR, Globe and Mail Baseball Reporter

Team Canada’s Adam Sterm highfives infielder Stubby Clapp

Team Canada’s Adam Sterm highfives infielder Stubby Clapp

PHOENIX (9 March 2006) – WHEN HE LEFT for the World Baseball Classic, Adam Stern’s Boston Red Sox teammates said they’d be waiting for him to return soon.

They thought Canada didn’t have much of a chance of advancing to the second round and that the centre fielder from London, Ont., wouldn’t be absent very long from the team’s spring training in Fort Myers, Fla.

“I guess I have a few phone calls to make tonight now,” said Mr. Stern, who turned in a once-in-a-lifetime performance yesterday in a once-in-a-lifetime win for Canadian baseball: a shocking 8-6 defeat of the heavily favoured United States.

The victory at Chase Field threw the inaugural baseball tournament into disarray by leaving the Americans without a guaranteed pass to the second round of play.

“Everybody in our clubhouse feels like we’ve been kicked in the stomach,” US manager Buck Martinez said. “It’s a very quiet clubhouse in there.”

In front of a crowd of 16,993, including small pockets of flag-waving Canadian fans and the National Basketball Association’s most valuable player, Steve Nash of Victoria, Mr. Stern, who missed much of the 2005 major-league season with a fractured thumb, had three hits in four at-bats.

His home run, triple and single had him flirting with one of the rare feats at any level of baseball, leaving the 26-year-old player a double short of hitting for the cycle. His homer was an inside-the-park one – also a rarity.

He made two crucial defensive plays to prevent the high-powered and high-profile American lineup from scoring even more runs and almost made a spectacular catch for the final out of the game. But he dropped Alex Rodriguez’s sinking liner as he hit the ground, bringing Mark Teixeira to the plate with the tying run.

Mr. Teixeira, who hit 43 homers for the Texas Rangers last year, grounded out to end the game.

Ernie Whitt

Ernie Whitt

Less than 24 hours after beating a team of amateur players representing South Africa, Canadian manager Ernie Whitt, the Toronto Blue Jays bench coach who has managed the national team since 1999, started 21-year-old, left-handed pitcher Adam Loewen, a native of Surrey, BC, who is one of the Baltimore Orioles’ brightest prospects.

Mr. Loewen, who was originally going to start the South African game, walked three batters, but navigated his way masterfully through a US lineup with such baseball heavyweights as Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr. and Chipper Jones.

He was helped out by an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded in the first inning, after which Mr. Loewen pumped his fist and hopped off the mound.

Canada has several everyday major-league players in its lineup, too, including two of the game’s premier young hitters, Jason Bay of Trail, B.C., and Justin Morneau of New Westminster, B.C.

WBC.2006.CanadiansCelebrateBut it doesn’t have the pitching depth of the United States, and when the Americans scored six runs in the fifth inning to make the score 8-6, it seemed as if the Canadians would succumb. Yet, perhaps taking their cue from Mr. Loewen, Canada’s mixture of journeymen and youngsters kept the United States off the scoreboard for the final four innings.

Canada has beaten the United States before at the amateur level, but nothing on the level of yesterday’s win because of the stage on which it occurred and the quality of the opposition.

“We put a young man out there to start the game and he did a great job,” Mr. Whitt said. “I mean, a lot of people question why we made the switch. Why would we throw a young gun into a situation like that? But to me, it’s a coming-out party for Loewen, and he handled it very well.”

Two teams will advance from each of the four four-team pools in the World Baseball Classic to second-round play, which will begin this weekend in Anaheim, Calif.

Canada, 2-0, the only undefeated team in Pool B, can earn a berth with a win today over Mexico. That would avoid getting into a complicated, multilayered tiebreaking scenario involving runs given up and possibly even the drawing of lots.

The possibility that the United States might not advance is nothing short of shocking, in an event that, in its inaugural year, was designed to give the United States the easiest possible route through to the finals.

“So, we’re cheering for Canada against Mexico, right?” Mr. Rodriguez asked assembled reporters after the game.

This is the first year baseball has played this event, and commissioner Bud Selig and other top officials acknowledge it is still very much a work in progress.

In order to protect pitchers, strict limits are in place in terms of pitch counts and days of work allowed. That means the games are managed more like spring-training games than regular-season games.

Pitchers often use spring-training games as a tune-up and approach hitters differently than what they would do in regular-season games.

Now, the US team has a new set of issues to think about. And Mr. Stern and the rest of his teammates aren’t thinking about permutations, or calculations or tiebreakers.

“Uh-uh,” Mr. Stern said. “We’re going to go and try to beat Mexico. We’re going for the No. 1 seed out of this pool.”

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