AJAX, Ont. - Tyler O'Neill had a little skip in his step on the way to first base and no doubt in his mind.
As the ball smacked off the batter's eye in centre field, O'Neill celebrated a three-run home run that gave Canada all the offence it needed Tuesday night. Thanks to O'Neill's shot and six strong innings from Shawn Hill, Canada beat Cuba 3-1 at President's Choice Ajax Park to improve to 4-0 in preliminary-round play at the Pan Am Games.
"I got some good wood on it," said O'Neill, Canada's youngest player at the age of 20. "It's just one of those feelings where when you tag a ball and really know it's gone, it just kind of erupts something inside of you and gets you really going."
Manager Ernie Whitt joked that O'Neill needs to hit the weight room some more because he didn't clear the batter's eye. But with his sixth-inning home run that went well over 400 feet to straightaway centre, the Seattle Mariners prospect from Maple Ridge, B.C., made his biggest impact yet in the tournament.
"He's been pretty good in this tournament, and that's what we want," Whitt said. "The expectation is there. We know that he’s got power and it’s just a matter of him getting a pitch."
O'Neill taking advantage of a misplaced fastball from Cuban starter Yoennis Yera came in the midst of a masterful outing by Hill, a 34-year-old who last pitched in the major leagues in 2012. Hill didn't strike out a batter but pitched to contact perfectly, allowing just three hits and issuing one walk in six shutout innings.
Whitt said the Georgetown, Ont., native who pitched for the Montreal Expos, Washington Nationals and Toronto Blue Jays and is with the independent York Revolution this season, kept a good Cuban team off balance. Hill felt better and better as his efficient night went on.
"My other stuff's fine, but it's my fastball," Hill said. "It's not velocity necessarily, it's location and a little bit of movement and just try to feel out the hitters."
Hill only got into trouble once, pitching with a 3-0 lead in the sixth, but he got a groundout and a flyout to get out of the jam.
With former Minnesota Twins starter Andrew Albers pitching in relief of Hill, Alfredo Despaigne led off the seventh with an opposite-field home run to right. The 29-year-old outfielder, considered one of the best players outside Major League Baseball, rounded the bases much faster than he did in March when a video of him doing a super slow trot went viral.
Albers shook off the home run to get Alexander Malleta to fly out, Rudy Reyes to ground out and pinch-hitter Yordan Manduley to line out to get out of the inning. Jeff Francis pitched a clean ninth for his second save of the Games.
"You have a plan in place, and they all kind of fell into place for us," Whitt said of Albers and Francis pitching strong innings of relief. "So we do have a plan going in on what we'd like to have, and we were able to do that."
Canada has a day off Wednesday before returning to face Puerto Rico on Thursday night. Whitt said the starting pitcher for that game is still to be determined.
Yera for five innings and then Hill for six put on a show Tuesday night, leading Despaigne to hope for a rematch this weekend.
"It was a very good game for the two pitchers," he said through an interpreter. "If we see Canada in the finals, we have to win."