Team Canada with backs to wall after Game 1 mercy loss to Italy: Griffin
PHOENIX-There was always a stated primary goal and an understood secondary one for Team Canada, entering the tournament opener against Italy at Chase Field on Friday afternoon. The primary reason for winning was to set up a situation wherein a win over Mexico on Saturday would ensure a berth in the second round. The unstated reason was to at least win one game and avoid the qualification round for the next WBC in 2017. Both goals were scuttled by a 14-4 loss to Italy, moving them to 2-0.
Once again, as in 2009, there will be some questioning of the strategy by manager Ernie Whitt in the wake of a loss, although this time it could be directly attributable to Canada's lack of major-league pitching depth. Recall in '09 at the Rogers Centre, following a tremendously exciting loss to Team USA in the opener, Whitt held back Scott Richmond, his bast available starter to have him face Venezuela in Game 3, allowing Vince Perkins to face Italy, an unkown baseball power at the time.
Unfortunately, in the one-and-done format of double elimination that year, Italy pulled off the upset and Richmond was left on the sidelines without being used, as Canada ignominiously headed home. With Italy already having a win over Mexico on Thursday, Friday was almost a must-win for Canada. This time they had their best, most experienced pitcher, Shawn Hill on the mound.
But once again, Whitt was unable to avoid controversy in another loss to Italy. Prior to the Italy game, Whitt had stated his intention of removing Hill before he exceeded 50 pitches, the reason being that if Canada advanced to the second round, they would need Hill for the Tuesday start in Miami, to open Round 2. More than that number and Hill would need four days off, missing Tuesday's start.
However, you basically have to win two of three in this round to worry about your pitching rotation next week and when Whitt removed Hill with two outs in the third inning, the game got away from him. Tied 1-1 with a runner on first, Mathieson, who pitched in Japan in 2012, walked Anthony Rizzo, gave up a bloop single to Alex Liddi and then surrendered a three-run blast to Chris Colabello. All of a sudden Canada trailed 5-1 with a steep hill left to climb.
Whitt continued to fuel the second guessers and Russell Martin continued to feed the fires of Canadian national wrath for his premature withdrawl at the last minute. A key moment when the game was close came in the fourth inning. Canada had leadoff runners on first and second, with lefthander Chris Cooper on the mound. Catcher Chris Robinson, one of two righthanded hitters in the lineup, replacing Martin as the starter, bunted the two runners over, even trailing by four runs. Canada played for two and scored zero, as Adam Loewen struck out and Pete Orr popped out to third base.
But it was Canada's obvious lack of top tier pitching that shone through as the game progressed. Whitt had been hoping that his piggy-back starters, Hill and Mathieson might combine for six innings in their 90 pitches, turning over a lead to the bullpen for the final nine outs.
“I like our bullpen, so we're going to try to keep all of our pitchers, our starting pitchers and our piggyback pitchers, at right around 45 pitches,” Whitt said prior to the game. “Hopefully that will get us to about the fifth or sixth inning, and then I'm comfortable with our bullpen after that. And then our bullpen guys, I really don't want to pitch them back-to-back days, so we'll try to separate that a little bit. This game today is very important. We're going to do whatever we can to get a victory.”
But Canada refused to buckle against a bullpen without the services of closer Jason Grilli, who exceeded his pitch limit in saving the game vs. Mexico. In the seventh, after a disputed hit-by-pitch of Justin Morneasu loaded the bases, Michael Saunders stroked a two-run single to right, narrowing the deficit to two runs. Brian Sweeney retired pinch-hitter Tim Smith with the tying run at first.
Philippe Aumont came in for the bottom of the seventh and after retiring the first two hitters, gave up three more runs, capped by a two-run double by Drew Butera, son of the Blue Jays' scout Sal. Two of the hits were broken bat, but the three runs broke Canada's back.
Italy piled on the Canadian bullpen, adding five runs in the bottom of the eighth, mercifully sending Canada to its first mercy loss in WBC play. Clearly Italy's Mike Piazza is a better hitting coach than Larry Walker of Team Canada.
Canada must now win games against Mexico on Saturday and the U.S. on Sunday and rely on other factors to fall into place in order to advance to the second round on Tuesday. But at least Shawn Hill is eligible to pitch at Marlins Park – or more likely back with the Tigers in Lakeland.