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Canadians move on from loss of pitchers, look ahead to WBC

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The Canadian Press
1/24/2009 7:52:38 PM
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TORONTO - There is much inspiration to be found in Adam Loewen for Canada's pitching staff at the World Baseball Classic.

Back during the first running of the tournament in 2006, the then highly touted left-hander yet to throw a pitch in the majors was given the daunting task of starting against a United States lineup featuring the likes of Derrek Lee, Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira.

Recipe for disaster, right? Not so fast.

Loewen ended up throwing 3 2-3 shutout innings that day in Phoenix, helping key Canada's stunning 8-6 upset of the Americans. Minus the big three of Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden and Jeff Francis for the 2009 Classic, the Canadians are hoping a few of their young arms can emulate what Loewen did three years ago.

"I blinked and it was over," Loewen recalled Saturday prior to Baseball Canada's annual awards banquet. "I'll never forget that, that's the highlight of my career by far."

It didn't come easy.

Loewen - who had no command warming up beforehand and in part found the experience "scary" - took to the mound with a 1-0 lead but looked set to hand it back when Derek Jeter singled with one out ahead of walks to Ken Griffey Jr., and Lee. Manager Ernie Whitt came out to settle his young pitcher, who then got Jones to hit into an inning-ending double play.

Loewen didn't face major trouble again and left up 7-0.

"It was a great trip to the mound by Ernie Whitt," Loewen quipped. "With the bases loaded and only one out, I thought I was in over my head. I had just walked two guys in a row and I was just hoping for an out. ...

"I think a lot of guys are capable of more than they realize. You just can't be afraid - embrace the moment. ... I wouldn't put it past anybody that one of these guys steps up and does the same thing."

Unfortunately for Canada, recurring elbow problems have since forced Loewen to try and resurrect his career as an outfielder. But the lessons of that outing will be used when the final 13-man pitching staff for the March event gets hammered out.

"I don't think it's a tournament that doesn't lend itself to people who are at this point and time relatively unproven with good stuff," said Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada's director of national teams. "It's just a limited look and it's not fun to see a guy who features plus stuff if you haven't seen him before and it's early in the season."

Infielder Stubby Clapp, who'll represent Canada on the field one last time at the Classic, agrees.

"As long as a pitcher's arm is in shape, and his legs are in shape, I would think they would have an edge over the hitters," he said. "Sometimes it takes a little bit longer for a hitter's timing to come than a pitcher's feel does."

Of course talent matters, too, and Loewen projected as a top-of-the rotation starter at the time. The pitcher most similar to him now would be Phillippe Aumont, who has tenderness in his elbow and isn't expected to be available.

Veteran savvy on the other hand is worth something, too, which is why national team stalwarts like Chris Begg, Mike Johnson, Eric Cyr and Steve Green could play big roles.

Toronto Blue Jays hopeful Scott Richmond falls in between the two classes and sets up as Canada's go-to pitcher for the most crucial games at the Classic.

"I saw Loewen throw great against the USA and that looks like a role I might be taking," he said. "He went out there and had fun, they weren't expecting much and look what happened, we ended up beating them.

"That would be a nice little Cinderella story here in Toronto."

It would, provided there's enough time before midnight.

Hoping that the pitchers can do just enough to give what shapes up as a solid offence a chance isn't the ideal way for Canada to head into the tournament.

Harden and Francis were recently forced to withdraw from the team because of shoulder injuries, joining Erik Bedard, Shawn Hill and Scott Mathieson on the sidelines with health problems.

Dempster pulled out for personal reasons, believed to be a feeling of responsibility to the Chicago Cubs after signing a US$52-million, four-year contract extension in November. It's a decision that left his fellow Canadians disappointed, but ready to move on.

"You've got to do what's best for you and your family and your goals," said star catcher Russ Martin. "Everybody's got their decisions to make and as long as you can be comfortable with that decision and not regret it later on, then it's a good decision. ...

"It's not up to me to judge them."

Martin's reputation as a catcher capable of helping pitchers keep their emotions in check should come in handy, as should his bat. The offence is certainly going to have to carry more of the load.

"It's definitely going to be a bigger challenge now - it already is a big challenge to compete against the best players in the world. To not have your best pitching staff is going to be tough, obviously," he said. "But nothing is impossible.

"And as long as we prepare to the best of our abilities and put our best effort out there, that's all that matters."

Notes: The banquet honoured the accomplishments of Larry Walker, Jeff Zimmerman, Rheal Cormier and Chris Reitsma, the latter two just retired after pitching for Canada at the Beijing Olympics. ... Joey Votto, Richmond plus Olympians Nick Weglarz and Brett Lawrie were recognized for exceptional achievements in 2008. ... Major League Baseball donated US$100,000 to Baseball Canada, which also received $15,000 from the Blue Jays and $10,000 from RBC, a new sponsor.

Adam Loewen (Photo: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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