Better days lie ahead

BOB ELLIOTT, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:02 AM ET

Three years ago this week we sat in the press box at Scottsdale Stadium during the World Baseball Classic opener.

In the eighth inning, after South Africa had scored three to take an 8-7 lead over Team Canada we saw official scorer Steve Hirdt approaching.

Hirdt combines a deep knowledge of baseball history, as vice-president of Elias Sports Bureau, with a quick wit.

"Tip O'Neill," Hirdt whispered, "is rolling over in his grave."

Canada did score four in the ninth to beat South Africa three years ago, but the eighth inning of Canada's 6-2 loss to Italy on Monday we thought of O'Neill, a .435 hitter for the 1887 St. Louis Browns, spinning on rotisserie spit wired incorrectly to fast forward.

We thought of the late Jim Ridley, Tom Burgess and George (Twinkletoes) Selkirk, all proud Canadians who cared about Canadian baseball turning over in their graves. And turning. And turning.

Canuck hitters looked off balance against soft-tossing lefty Dan Serafini and as the game progressed, with the Italy lead growing, they began to press.

Was it Canada's worst loss on the diamond?

"The most heart-breaking loss our program ever had was the Cuba game -- six outs from playing Australia for the gold -- at Athens in 2004," national team director Greg Hamilton said yesterday. "But the loss to Italy is the most disappointing. It was a game we shouldn't lose.

"Look at their lineup, at our lineup, look at their pitching and our pitching. We should have beaten Italy, they didn't throw four major-league arms at us. You'd like to think you should be able to score."

Canada had seven hits and drew eight walks, but stranded 11.

Manager Ernie Whitt took full blame after the loss for saving his best arm, Scott Richmond of the Blue Jays, for what Canada had hoped would be its chance to advance against Venezuela.

"If anyone wants to second guess saving the ace, I'm as equally responsible," Hamilton said. "My view is we did it the right way. We had to win two games. If we had beaten Italy with Richmond, we would have been facing Venezuela's major-league lineup in the next game. It wasn't like we were trying to sneak one out against Australia.

"I don't know how we would have gotten past Venezuela if we had pitched Richmond earlier."

The who-should-start-when discussion has been going all ahead full as Canada went with Mike Johnson in the opener, Vince Perkins against Italy, saving Richmond for the third game.

It's not a threesome like three years ago when it was Eric Bedard, Adam Loewen and Jeff Francis. Or what it could have been had everyone been healthy: Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden and Bedard. Harden threw two scoreless and Dempster three in an 8-1 Chicago Cubs win over Seattle yesterday.

Was going to Richmond as the first man out of the bullpen once Italy took the lead an option?

"We wanted to protect his career, he had thrown his bullpen the day before," Hamilton said. "We want Scott to make the Blue Jays rotation. We don't want him injuring his shoulder rushing to get ready to pitch in relief, when he's a starter."

A three-part, investigative series on what is wrong with Canadian baseball is not needed. As exciting as Saturday's USA game was in front of 42,314 fans, the Italy game in front of 12,411 was as ugly.

As bad as that one Italian game was, we're not ready to say this golden era of Canadian baseball is over. Not off one game.

There are other numbers:

Five first-round draft selections this decade compared to one in the 1990s. And Whitby lefty Evan Grills, of the Ontario Blue Jays, may be a first-rounder in 2010.

YOUNG GUNS

Twenty Canadians on major-league rosters in 2008. There were five in 1988.

There were 118 Canucks in the minors last season, 65 in 1998.

And there are 700 Canadians playing college ball south of the border this spring for a fifth straight season, compared to 590 in 2000.

"There are guys coming," said Hamilton when asked about the 2013 WBC. "We had young guys like Chris Leroux, Brett Lawrie, Nick Weglarz and Phillippe Aumont this time. And there are guys coming like Mike Saunders, Blake Hawksworth and Kyle Lotzkar."


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