On a very pleasant nearly-cloudless Saturday evening in Ajax, a Toronto suburb, a close-to-capacity crowd of 3,522 enjoyed an entertaining game between the visiting Dominican Republic and the host Team Canada on the first day of the Pan Am Games. Although there was a very loud and festive contingent of Dominican Republic fans (they brought a drum!) sitting down the first base line, the vast majority of fans were cheering on Team Canada, and they were rewarded for their attendance with a 4-1 win for the host country (box score).
The starters were locked in a pitchers' duel for the first half of the game. Team Dominican Republic's Claudio Vargas (who pitched for the Blue Jays organization in 2013) mystified Canadian hitters, striking out five through 5.2 innings. He allowed just three baserunners--two of them being Richmond Hill native Pete Orr.
Batting second, the third baseman Orr lined a Vargas offering in the bottom of the first to dead centre field, just eluding the glove of Dominican centre fielder Yeixon Ruiz for a triple. Orr scored the game's first run to give Canada a lead it would not relinquish when the heavily-bearded Tim Smith hit a sacrifice fly to right. Orr's second time on base came on a two-out walk which ended Vargas's night. Vargas made only one other mistake, hitting shortstop Sean Jamieson, who hails from Kitchener, in the second inning.
Canada's starter Chris Leroux, who was born in Montreal but grew up in Mississauga, was not as good as Vargas and was battling his command from time-to-time. He scattered six hits over his six innings, but managed to strand them all. But most impressively, despite a few three-ball counts, he didn't walk any Dominican players (who aren't known to take walks) while racking up eight strikeouts. A few of the strikeouts that the pitchers got during this game were at least somewhat aided by home plate umpire Jeffrey Macias's generous strike zone, who befuddled both countries' left-handed batters with his particular definition of the inside edge.
The troubles came after the two starters left. For Canada, after Orr reached base with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning, the righty Vargas was lifted for lefty Pedro De Los Santos. Dominican Republic manager Denio Gonzalez probably regrets that decision as the shaky 26-year-old reliever proceeded to balk before allowing a single to Tim Smith.
Sensing a rally, the previously quiet Canadian fans down the third base line offered their players encouragement with a "Let's go Can-a-da" chant, which, together with the sound of a passing train's horn, welcomed Langley's Jordan Lennerton to the plate. Lennerton responded to his fans by sending a De Los Santos offering into the right field bullpens (not an opposite-field jack for @oppo_jack_lenny) for a three-run home run to give Canada a 4-0 lead. The reliever proceeded to give up a single back up the middle and a walk before he himself was relieved by Miguel Fermin. Fermin was great for the Dominican Republic, finishing the game and not letting another Canadian reach base.
Leroux was followed by a couple of left handed Buffalo Bisons on temporary leave. North Battleford's Andrew Albers came in first and promptly gave up a solo shot to left by Pedro Felez, but then really impressed by not allowing another hit. He struck out three in his two innings and generated a lot of swings-and-misses. Delta's Jeff Francis was called on by manager Ernie Whitt to wrap up the game in the ninth and he did so cleanly, striking out a couple before getting Felez to fly out harmlessly to right fielder Rene Tosoni of Port Coquitlam.
The defensive play of the game came in the top of the fifth. Dominican Republic's Yeixon Ruiz hit a fly ball to shallow left, and despite the convergence of Canada's young left fielder Tyler O'Neill and shortstop Sean Jamieson, the ball dropped safely on the grass just as Ruiz was rounding first base. Seeing that, Maple Ridge's O'Neill fired a strike to second base to Bow Island's Skyler Stromsmoe who applied the tag to nab Ruiz. A close second came in the bottom of the seventh inning when Dominican first baseman Jordy Lara snagged a hard-hit ball from Vancouver's Tyson Gillies and tossed it to pitcher Fermin, who barely beat Gillies in a foot race to first base.
The President's Choice Ajax Pan Am Ballpark is composed of six diamonds and is situated between the houses of a suburban subdivision on one side and farmland on the other about a 15-minute shuttle bus ride from the Ajax GO Train station. Tickets to the baseball games are general admission with no assigned seating, so it is important to arrive early to get the best seats.
Upon entry, all visitors will have to completely empty their pockets and have their bags searched before a security wand scan. Unlike the security personnel at the airport and Rogers Centre, they were actually friendly. The bottleneck happens after the security station as there is only one ticket scanner for the entire facility. Just a couple of notes: the entire Ajax Park complex had free public Wi-Fi, but there is no cover over the stands, so bring a hat if it is sunny or a raincoat if it's rainy. There are also no bathrooms but there is a farm of porta-potties next to the main diamond.
The game experience itself is more akin to an Intercounty semi-professional baseball game than what one would experience in a minor- or major league stadium. There are no videoboards, just a simple scoreboard in left field, and no GameDay-like app so it is important to actually pay attention to every pitch and play. Every message over the public address system is repeated thrice in Spanish, French, and English. During the Dominican Republic-Canada game there were some audio oddities--like music being blasted during an at bat after a foul ball--as the sound guy was clearly not a baseball fan. All Pan Am tickets include free transit for the day of the game to encourage people to take public transit instead of driving.
Team Canada will continue to seek to repeat as the Pan Am men's baseball gold medalists tomorrow at 3:35 pm in a game against Team Colombia. Overall, Canada is currently leading the games with eight medals, four gold, two silver, and two bronze.