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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Scoffing at Canadians a bad idea

Canada, already a distinctly advanced society, took another step up the evolutionary ladder Wednesday, defeating the U.S. at the American national game.

Canada closer Steve Green pitched a scoreless ninth to earn the save.Team Canada shocked the world Wednesday, and now Team USA's chances in the World Baseball Classic are hanging in the balance heading into Thursday's action. More >

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Team Canada celebrates their 8-6 win over Team USA on Wednesday.
Team Canada celebrates their 8-6 win over Team USA on Wednesday.
Team USA rally falls short vs. Canada
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PHOENIX -- Canada, already a distinctly advanced society, took another step up the evolutionary ladder Wednesday, defeating the U.S. at the American national game.

The Canadians beat Team USA, 8-6, in the second game of pool play in the World Baseball Classic. There are those who would argue that this was an embarrassment, losing at our national game. This argument does a disservice to the Canadians on several levels.

U.S. manager Buck Martinez, asked about his reaction to this defeat, said: "Not shocked by any means. Canada, we all know about their makeup, we all know they're tough. Their roster may not be laden with a lot of Major Leaguers, but they've got a lot of heart."

Canadian manager Ernie Whitt sounded a similar note: "I know for a fact that we don't have the depth that other countries have," Whitt said. "But we do have a lot of heart."

They have a lot of heart, those Canadians. Let's face it: There is a distinct chance that Team USA underestimated Canada. Much of the rest of American society, underestimates Canada, viewing it as a vast, frequently frozen wilderness in which people say "a boot" when they mean "about," and the only possible sporting interests are hockey, curling and possibly, luge.

Canada is a civilized, democratic nation that has all the earmarks of a place in which the great game of baseball would flourish. And, once they got some of the kids to take the skates off and start throwing and catching, to drop the sticks and pick up the bats, it began flourishing.

"We're more than just a hockey country," centerfielder Adam Stern with a large smile. Stern had three hits, including a home run and a triple, drove in four runs and played stellar defense. He was brilliant. The only American solace over his performance would come from fans of the Boston Red Sox, the organization for which he will work after this tournament.

Canada has some established Major League talent, and a larger group of young, potential stars. Adam Loewen, the starting pitcher who shut out the U.S. for 3 2/3 innings Wednesday, is merely 21, and was a Class A ball pitcher last season. "This was a coming-out party for Loewen," Whitt said. Canada would be better still if two of its best pitchers, Eric Gagne and Rich Harden, weren't recovering from surgeries and thus unavailable.

This game, while it revealed Canadian strengths, also exposed some weaknesses on the U.S. team. In analyzing the U.S. personnel on the World Baseball Classic roster, we can divide the 30 players into three distinct groups.

1 -- Stars of the game.

2 -- Emerging stars of the game.

3 -- Al Leiter.

Now, Al Leiter has had a long and distinguished career and nothing should detract from that. But at this juncture -- the end of his career -- he should not be on this roster. Or, if we believe that he should be allowed on the roster for sentimental reasons, he should not be used in a meaningful situation. And in a tournament in which the second tiebreaker is fewest runs allowed, he could not be put into this game after Dontrelle Willis had already given up three runs. But he was.

When Leiter entered the game Wednesday, in relief of Dontrelle Willis, the Canadians were up, 3-0. This was still a contest. Leiter faced six batters, four of whom reached. By the time he was done giving up Willis' runs and Gary Majewski was done giving up his runs, it was 7-0.

Leiter's performance could have come as a surprise only to those who haven't been paying attention. He had a 6.13 ERA last season. Much more recently, he gave up four runs in one inning in an exhibition game against the San Francisco Giants. These weren't the regular Giants, either, but mostly a collection of would-be Giants prospects.

Leiter and Majewski were late additions to the U.S. team after the late defections of Billy Wagner and C.C. Sabathia. Asked earlier about Leiter's place on the roster, Martinez said that he knew Leiter had a down year last year, but he also knew that Leiter "had a lot of heart."

As you can see, there is a lot of "heart" talk, going around. But it always rings truer when you win. Nobody's doubts Al Leiter's heart. It is his current inability to retire hitters that is at the core of the issue.

Wednesday's loss, of course, was not all Leiter's fault. There was shoddy defense and there were eight innings in which the U.S. could not score. One of the numerous spiritual low points came in the bottom of the eighth, when second baseman Chase Utley was up with two on and two out. A home run would put the U.S. ahead, climaxing a remarkable rally from an eight-run deficit. Utley hit the ball hard, dropped his bat and struck a home run pose. Problem. It wasn't a home run. It was a long fly ball caught at the wall in center. You kids watching at home, do the posing only after it is clear that the home run is not an out.

In all, it was a triumphant day for Canadian baseball. For America, it was another reminder why scoffing at our Northern neighbors is a very flimsy idea.

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