Canada has been eliminated from the World Baseball Classic tournament after losing a very exciting game to the United States at Chase Field in Phoenix this afternoon. Both teams came into the game needing a win in order to advance to the second round, and despite Canada holding a lead with six outs remaining, the powerful American team pulled off a massive comeback, scoring seven runs in the last two innings to defeat their northern neighbours 9-4.
Canada was given an early 2-0 lead in the bottom of the second on a Michael Saunders two-run homer following a Justin Morneau lead-off double. Saunders would be named the Most Valuable Player of Group D after the game.
Canadian starter James Taillon looked sharp in his outing, giving up two runs (one earned) on four hits through four innings pitched, striking out three and walking only one. The United States' first run came in the fourth, on third baseman Taylor Green's throwing error on a Ben Zobrist bunt, and the following batter Adam Jones tied up the game with a sacrifice fly. Taillon looks like he will be a stud for the Pittsburgh Pirates for years to come.
After Taillon, Canada turned to Nippon Ham Fighter Dustin Molleken, who threw two innings of one-hit ball, including a ten-pitch fifth to retire Jimmy Rollins, Brandon Phillips, and Ryan Braun 1-2-3. Team Canada started a rally against reliever Glen Perkins. Joey Votto and Justin Morneau reached base, and Canada's 2006 WBC star pitcher Adam Loewen, now an outfielder, lined a single to score Votto to give Canada a go-ahead run. Phillippe Aumont came in next and delivered a two-hit inning.
With Canada up 3-2 going into the top of the eighth and Joe Mauer, David Wright, and Ben Zobrist due up, manager Ernie Whitt called on Jimmy Henderson to replace Aumont. I understand that it is against baseball convention, but Whitt should have brought in closer John Axford to try and hold the lead right there. And yes, I said that not just in hindsight. The 6'5 Calgary native looked out of his element on the Chase Field mound, allowing the first two men to reach base. He recorded the first out after United States manager Joe Torre called on Ben Zobrist to bunt. However, his good luck ended there as Adam Jones--the Orioles player who was often stopped by Canadian immigration officials at Pearson--then doubled to score two, later Shane Victorino added one more run on a single, giving the U.S. a 5-3 lead.
Although there was a collective heart-crush among many fans across the country, the players wearing "CANADA" on their chest weren't ready to give up. Votto led off with a single against David Hernandez, then Michael Saunders drops a bunt single, then Chris Robinson loaded the bases with another single with Adam Loewen at bat. Loewen hits a grounder between first and second, which was grabbed beautifully by Brandon Phillips for a 4-3 ground out, but a run scored anyway. Torre called in Steve Cishek to intentionally walk Pete Orr (why? no idea) to face pinch-hitter Tim Smith, who ended the inning by gounding out.
The Canadians were within a run of the Americans, 5-4, heading into the top of the ninth. Imagine my shock when the commercials ended and I saw the last warmup pitches of Scott Mathieson instead of John Axford. Whitt's decision to not go to Axford in the eighth I could sort of understand, but I had no idea why he chose to stick with Mathieson here. Canada was the home team, so being behind going into the ninth inning means that there was going to be no save situation in the game. Baffling. Incomprehensible. Ridiculous.
Mathieson allows a leadoff double from Brandon Phillips, struck out Ryan Braun, then allowed Jonathan Lucroy to extend the lead to two. He was only taken out of the game after David Wright was walked. As Whitt came out to bring in John Axford, three batters (or ten, if you think Axford should have pitched the eighth) too late.
John Axford comes in after Wright walk. Fan yells, "It's too late Ernie."— Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi) March 10, 2013
"Fan"? I think that deserves a plural, Shi.
It didn't end up mattering, as Axford would allow a bases-clearing double to make it a 9-4 game. Torre brought in Craig Kimbrel to finish the game, and got the deflated Canadians 1-2-3, finishing with Votto striking out without lifting the bat off his shoulders.
After the game, Whitt said that the gameplan was to use Aumont, Henderson, then Axford if the Canadians had the lead. But when the Canadians fell behind--by one run--he decided to do the Milwaukee Brewers a favour by not using Axford, saying "if we lost the game, we lost the game." As far as I know, Whitt was hired to win games for Canada, not to make sure he saves the Brewers' reliever from overwork. It was unfortunate that Whitt had to use Axford against Mexico after the brawl (and the blowout against Italy) left an empty bullpen.
I think many of us are unhappy with the results, but as I could tell from the GameThread here as well as the fans on Twitter, many of us enjoyed the game a lot. We even got to feel the late-inning butterflies in the stomach when Canada was clinging on to a one-run lead with six outs to go. The team showed a lot of heart and a lot of success. Justin Morneau, Michael Saunders, Chris Robinson, Adam Loewen, James Taillon, Dustin Molleken, and Chris Leroux all had a tremendous series. The other players on the roster pulled themselves up from an embarrassing loss against Italy to play two fun games against Mexico and the United States. They got the country to come together to cheer for baseball. I hope that this tournament raised the profile of baseball in our country.
Yes, Baseball Canada failed to advance in the World Baseball Classic once again. It is gloomy, but hey, the weather's getting warmer, the days are getting longer, and it's just March. We still have an entire season of exciting Blue Jays baseball to look forward to.