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  Mon, July 5, 2004


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OTTAWA LYNX




Francis to lead charge?
Outstanding left-hander looks like he could be Canada's main man at the Olympics
By BOB ELLIOTT -- Toronto Sun

Jeff Francis (Photo courtesy Tulsa Drillers)

Eight months ago when Team Canada qualified for the Olympic Games in Athens, you figured a 6-foot-5 left-hander would likely lead the way for Canada.

Yet, as the season has progressed, a different southpaw has emerged with the "Most Likely to Start the Opener" tag.

Lefty Jeff Francis, of North Delta, B.C., is moving at a blue-chip prospect, ear-popping pace.

Meanwhile, lefty Adam Loewen, of Surrey, B.C., expected to dominate on the international stage as he had before, is moving at the normal pace that most minor leaguers do. The Baltimore Orioles gave Loewen a $4.02-million US major-league deal in May of 2003.

Francis went ninth overall in the 2002 draft to the Colorado Rockies -- five spots behind Loewen -- and received a $1.85-million bonus.

TURNED THINGS AROUND

After opening with a 2-7 won-loss record and a 7.42 earned run average at single-A Visalia in 2002, Francis turned things around.

In the past 12 months, he is 22-3 in 33 starts, allowing three or fewer runs in 26 of them, including 16 of 16 at double-A Tulsa this season.

Francis says the reason for his success is that he is throwing his pitches with more conviction and is not being as hesitant as he was at the start of the 2003 season.

He owns an 88-90 m.p.h. fastball along with a curve and changeup. Francis is 12-1 with a 2.11 ERA this season, walking 22 and striking out 133 in 106 2/3 innings.

"He's a lot more than a crafty left-hander," Tulsa pitching coach Bo McLaughlin said, "a crafty left-hander is hitting spots at 86-87 m.p.h. He can do the same thing but at a little bit higher pace. And the consistency of his delivery has been great to see for a young person."

Francis will soon be promoted to triple-A Colorado Springs and hopefully for Team Canada he stays there until the end of the month. Canada will name its roster in 10 days, but Major League Baseball teams can call up players until July 31.

Francis learned his craft from coach Ari Mellios and the North Delta Blue Jays in the B.C. Premier League. He also starred for three seasons at the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds under coach Terry McKaig. Francis was 12-3 with an 0.92 ERA in 2001 with UBC and 7-2 with a 1.93 ERA in 2002.

As well, Francis pitched for the Team Canada National junior team in 2000. It is probable that the left-hander could be joined by others with roots going back to the Baby Nats.

There were 11 grads of the national junior team celebrating on the field when Canada clinched a berth in the Olympics Nov. 9 at Panama City, Panama.

The alumni, also under consideration for Athens, are: Scarborough third baseman Todd Betts; Windsor second baseman Stubby Clapp; Hull catcher Pierre-Luc Laforest; shortstop Kevin Nicholson, of Surrey B.C.; infielder Scott Thorman, of Cambridge; reliever Mikey Kusiewicz, of Nepean, catcher Russ Martin, of Montreal, reliever Mike Meyers, Tillsonburg, right-hander Chris Mears, of Victoria, B.C.; righty Jason Dickson, of Chatham, N.B. and first baseman Justin Morneau, of New Westminster, B.C.

Both Morneau, a Minnesota Twins prospect, who is hitting .318 with 20 homers and 59 RBIs at triple-A Rochester, and Francis will play in the Futures Game July 11 in Houston as part of the all-star festivities. They will be Canada's reps with the World team against Team USA.

Jesse Crain, a Twins farmhand, is on the short list for Team Canada. He was born at Toronto General Hospital 23 years ago today, yet he was in the city for only three months before moving to the United States when his father, Dan, was unable to obtain a work visa.

Not to worry, Francis will be in Greece ... so Team Canada hopes.