The World Baseball Classic has not been kind to Canada, and when a breakthrough that was just five outs away vanished, it left a team that was both drained and disappointed.
After leading the powerhouse United States 3-2 into the eighth inning of a must-win game, Canada's bullpen unravelled. The Americans rallied to advance to the second round with three runs in the eighth and four more in the ninth for a 9-4 victory that eliminated the Canadians.
When the players returned to the locker-room, Canada's Justin Morneau said there was little to talk about following an exhausting weekend.
"I think everybody knew how close we were, what it means to be here," he said. "Obviously you want to do your best and move on and represent the country as well as you can. I think we did everything we could, it just didn't work out for us."
Few Canadian baseball players have known more disappointment at the WBC than Morneau.
The Minnesota Twins first baseman was there in 2006 when a team with a winning record failed to advance, and wore the Maple Leaf four years ago when Canada was upset by Italy in Toronto.
"It's crazy. It's hard to believe we still have a whole season ahead of us after this," said Morneau, the heart of Canada's lineup. "It's such an emotional time being ahead exactly the way we would have wanted to draw it up with two of our best bullpen guys coming in, both with closing experience. Then to lose the way we did, it was such a great game, a great ballgame the whole way."
It was a dream game for Canada until the meltdown. Michael Saunders hit a two-run homer in the second inning for a 2-0 lead, and Adam Loewen drove in Cincinnati Reds slugger Joey Votto for a 3-2 lead in the sixth.
For all the anticipation of Votto's eventual commitment to Canada, Saunders turned out to be the team's star and was named the most valuable player of Pool D.
"It's definitely an honour," said Saunders, an outfielder with the Seattle Mariners. "However, it's kind of a sour taste in my mouth right now. Whenever you represent your country, it really doesn't matter how you do, as long as you win. And that was the main focus today."
Playing in his first WBC, the Victoria native was stellar at the plate, batting 8-for-11 with seven RBIs, two walks and a .727 batting average that led all teams in the first round.
The emergence of Saunders helped Canada (1-2) endure a gruelling three days at Chase Field. On Friday, Canada suffered a humiliating 14-4 loss to Italy that ended after eight innings due to the tournament's 10-run mercy rule.
Eager to make up crucial runs in case of a tiebreaker and with the game well in hand, Canada fought back, literally, in Saturday's 10-3 victory over Mexico. Upset with Canada trying to run up the score, Mexico's Arnold Leon hit Canadian outfielder Rene Tosoni with a pitch that sparked a bench-clearing brawl.
Fresh from the fight, Canada looked determined early against the U.S.
Morneau hit a leadoff double on the first pitch he saw in the second inning, and Saunders followed that up with a rocket off U.S. starter Derek Holland to right field for a 2-0 lead.
"We were disappointed by the loss (to Italy) and after that Mexico game, I mean everybody was pumped up and we brought it into this game early," said Loewen. "You know we got all the way to the seventh inning up a run and it could have gone either way at that point. They were just better today."
Starting pitcher Jameson Taillon was effective for Canada through four innings of work. The Pittsburgh Pirates' highly prized prospect struck out Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Braun in a 1-2-3 third, but poor defence helped the U.S. tie the game in the fourth.
Third baseman Taylor Green committed his second error of the game after grabbing a Ben Zobrist bunt but throwing too low to first base. The ball bounced off the mound, allowing Joe Mauer to score. On the next at-bat, Adam Jones hit a sacrifice fly to bring home David Wright and tie the game at two.
Starting Taillon, the team's youngest player at just 21 years old, against the U.S. turned out to be a smart move by manager Ernie Whitt. Taillon had three strikeouts and surrendered two runs on four hits with a walk through four innings.
Taillon, a dual citizen, remained non-committal about his future with Canada — the U.S. could always call in the future after all. If he stays, Canada will have a potential superstar on the mound for years ahead.
"I haven't even thought about it but I mean Team Canada taking a step, taking a chance on me, giving me a jersey to play for them, that was huge," said Taillon. "I don't think I'll ever forget that going forward."
Dustin Molleken, who allowed only two hits and no runs through four innings at the tournament, provided another bright spot for Canada. The Regina native, who plays in Japan, was tidy in shutting down U.S. batters with just one hit in the fifth and sixth innings.
Votto walked in the sixth and was eventually moved to third. He scored on a drive to right-centre by Loewen for a 3-2 lead in front of the crowd of 22,425.
Phillippe Aumont pitched a clean seventh, but the bullpen began to buckle in the eighth when Jones hit a two-run double off reliever Jim Henderson to give the U.S. its first lead of the game.
Shane Victorino scored Jones to put the U.S. ahead 5-3, but Canada pulled to within one in the bottom of the inning when Loewen hit a bases-loaded ground. But Canada let a chance to regain the lead slip away when pinch hitter Tim Smith grounded out to end the inning.
The ninth featured an insurance RBI by Jonathan Lucroy, and a three-run double by Eric Hosmer hit off Canadian closer John Axford put the game beyond doubt.
"Yeah, no, I'm not happy with the results," said Whitt. "I thought it was a good ballgame. They got some key hits in timely situations, and so you tip your hat to them."
The victory is a relief for the U.S. (2-1). The team opened the tournament with a 5-2 loss to Mexico (1-2) but rallied back with a 6-2 win over Italy (2-1), which also advanced. The next round begins Tuesday in Miami.
Jones said the Americans kept patient early while Canada's offence was dangerous.
"Team Canada, they were hitting a lot of balls right on the button at us, and we were doing the same thing the first part of the game ... everybody was trying to get the big hit," he said. "But not necessarily to try and hit a home run or anything like that, but put the ball in play and live with the results."
What the results mean for Canada's future remain unclear.
Several established major-leaguers such as catcher Russell Martin and pitcher Ryan Dempster opted to skip playing for Canada at the tournament. Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie joined the team but suffered a rib strain and had to withdraw Thursday.
Canada's WBC team was built around a core of players with international success following a gold-medal victory over the U.S. at the Pan American Games in 2011. Some of those players, such as catcher Chris Robinson thrived at the WBC. Others, like leadoff hitter Tyson Gillies who went 0-for-14 with three strikeouts, showed Canada has clear weaknesses.
The coaching staff has also been with the team for many years, and finding a capable replacement for Whitt would be difficult for Baseball Canada.
Votto said he hopes Canada's latest failure doesn't lead to changing the team for the sake of change. He doesn't usually believe team chemistry in baseball outweighs talent, but thinks a short tournament like the WBC is an exception.
"if you're playing for your team and you're playing for the guys you know and grew up with, I think no matter what you're up against you still think you have a chance," said Votto.
"When I play with this team, it feels like the teams I played with when I was 11 and 14 and 16 years old. It feels like the guys I grew up with, and you don't get that a lot. ... These are my friends and my countrymen."
Notes: Canadian Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins and Ken Griffey Jr. each threw out the first pitch. ... Total attendance for Pool D play in Arizona was 115,183.Suggest a correction