TORONTO—With just one game remaining, the last men standing at Tournament 12 are the reigning champion squad from Quebec, and the team with players from the prairie provinces. Pitching helped propel both teams forward on the final day of pool play, with a no-hitter paving the way for the French team.
Historically, the provinces that have produced the highest number of professional players and major leaguers are British Columbia and Ontario, but in the three years of the Blue Jays-hosted event at Rogers Centre, a total of seven Ontario teams—which have included the majority of the country's top draft picks from the last two years—have yet to make it to the final day of competition.
Rise And Shine
Mathieu Deneault-Gauthier flew in Wednesday night before his only appearance of the tournament in the first game of the day on Thursday, leaving almost immediately thereafter, and in his short time away from home in Candiac, Quebec, he kept his team in the event, throwing a seven-inning no-no with nine strikeouts.
It would seem it was worth it for the 17-year-old Canadian Junior National Team member to miss school for a day to join the team he won the championship game with last year.
“I came in here just wanted to throw strikes the best I can, and work for the team," Deneault-Gauthier said. “They made the plays behind me and it was a lot of fun … I threw a (nine-inning) perfect game three weeks ago but this was my first no-hitter."
The 6-foot-1, 155-pound righthander has made huge progressions since leaving his mark at the second-annual Tournament 12 last year, where he set himself apart with his incredible compete level and a tendency to rise to the occasion. Now, he has some added strength and is continuing to improve.
“My fastball velocity is up and it was really up this summer," the young hurler said. “I was up to 91 (mph). But my pitches are better. My changeup was really good today, and I just need to practice more to get all three of my pitches in the strike zone all the time. But I've improved a lot since last year in this tournament."
Said one scout: “Deneault-Gauthier has the kind of stuff that thrives in a setting like T12. He has a feel for three pitches, good tempo, and he attacks hitters. He's always had that, but the stuff has gotten better every year I have seen him."
Room To Grow
Matching up against Deneault-Gauthier on Thursday was 15-year-old righthander Ben Abram, the youngest pitcher in the tournament. In two outings, the native of Georgetown, Ontario, has allowed just one run and four hits over six innings, with two walks and eight strikeouts, during a time when he says his velo has been down.
“My arm was a little tight today, so I didn't expect anything out of myself in terms of (velocity)," Abram said. “You know if you're throwing hard, but it didn't matter to me. My strength is in the ability to throw multiple different pitches, and the movement on my fastball. And I'm working on getting to throw my changeup for a strike consistently. That would be good."
Abram throws a fastball, sinker, changeup, curveball and slider, and his 6-foot-6, 200-pound-and-still-developing frame seem to indicate that no matter whether his velocity was at its best, sitting in the low 80s, the power will come.
“I'm not done growing," the young pitcher said. “I was around 6-foot-6 a couple months ago, but I've always been tall. My parents (Brett and Sandy) are really tall."
Working with the Ontario Terriers program of late, he has made some quick improvements in other areas as well.
“I've gotten a lot better over the last while," Abram said. “When I came into the Terriers organization I only had a fastball and I couldn't throw anything else for a strike. I was throwing pretty hard at the time but they showed me how to throw all the different pitches and now I can command them all, so it's good."
Added one evaluator: “Ben Abram has as much ability as anyone in this tournament. He showed that he can already compete at this level and it's only going to continue to get better. He is, as they say, 'what they look like.'"
Ducks On The Pond
Another impressive arm on display Thursday was Nick Cardinal, a native of Bonnyville, Alberta, who is attending and playing for Mesa (Ariz.) Community College.
The 18-year-old righty looked even better than his stat line, allowing two runs on five hits with two walks and seven strikeouts over 5 2/3 innings. And that was after he threw 3 2/3 frames on Tuesday to open the tournament for his team, allowing two runs on four hits with five strikeouts in that outing.
What hurt Cardinal the most was a complete change in demeanor and pace when he allowed runners on the bases behind him. There's no doubt that he will find continued success, but he will have to find some consistency working out of the stretch.
“He gets out of rhythm and he slows the game down and he becomes really methodical, but they're minor things," Alberta coach Les McTavish said. “I know (fellow coach) Mike Johnson talked to him about it, and there you've got a former big leaguer who was pretty successful in his career giving you advice, so hopefully he's able to take a little bit out of that.
“It certainly is different, definitely … Hopefully he can improve on those things, because your toughest outs are with guys on base, and Greg Maddux talked about it all the time, that when he got guys on base that's when it matters.
“But he did great today. He was really, really great today for sure, especially on a day's rest. He was better today than he was the first day."
It seems as though there is nothing Noah Naylor can't do.
The 15-year-old native of Mississauga, Ontario, came into the tournament listed as a catcher and shortstop, and really could have been penciled in as just a hitter and no one would have thought twice about it. But during his time at the event, the lefthanded hitter spent time at every position on the infield.
“It helps me a lot because I'm able to be a dynamic player," Naylor said. “You could place me anywhere and I'll do my best to get the job done. If you're a team struggling to place people in the field, I'm a good player to choose because I can move around, I'm easy to work with, and I'm very versatile."
The positional switches included one Naylor had never tried before: first base. For many, it looked familiar after seeing his older brother Josh at the position for the last few years before he was selected 12th overall–the highest Canadian position player ever—by the Marlins, but for Noah it was new.
“You always have to try every position once in your life," the Ontario Blue Jays backstop said. “I'm usually all around the infield, so it's nothing really new for me, except for being at first base. But I had a lot of fun over there for the first time … You just have to get used to (the ball coming in at different angles) and realize who's playing what and where, to adjust."
There's no doubt that the younger Naylor will continue to impress all over the diamond for many years to come, after breaking out on the major league stage in a big way in his first large showcase event.
“Noah is a great athlete," one scout said. “He has the ability to play anywhere on the dirt, and do it well. What makes it even more impressive is that it is his bat that everyone wants to talk about."
True North Strong And Free
With Tournament 12 wrapping up on Friday, next up on the Canadian high school baseball agenda is the next trip with the Canadian Junior National Team—to face instructional league competition in Orlando in October—the first of what should be a cycle of players looking ahead to the next world junior championships in two years, held at home in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
“We're going to look to build for 2017," Baseball Canada's director of national teams Greg Hamilton said. “It's in Canada, and when you play at home—as evidenced by the Pan Am Games and in previous years the world juniors—it's special and very unique. It's great for the country, it's great for the players, and the program."
Hamilton had his eye on several of the younger players at the event as he gears up for a longer period of development within the program—after a sixth-place finish at the 18U World Cup in Japan earlier this month—while he balances the mix of players who are at the top of the game now and heading into their draft years.
“We're going to take the opportunity to look down the road two years and try to build at least a nucleus of that team over the next year-and-a-bit," he said. “But deserving players or prospect-type guys who legitimately have the ability to fit that profile, we'll bring in. We can't go completely young and try to play against instructional league teams and maintain that schedule."
With a large turnover expected, some of the remaining players will have to step up and fill the void while helping the growth of the program that they will soon leave behind. The man who is currently expected to be Canada's top high school prospect in next year's draft is currently at the top of that list.
“Andrew Yerzy (Toronto) is going to be an important guy as an 18-year-old who is a legitimate prospect who's been around for quite some time," Hamilton said. “There are two purposes this year. There's trying to give the prospects the opportunity to be seen in the right environment and to give them the best opportunity to receive consideration in June, but they have to understand that there's also a purpose that they need to provide to the program for some of the younger guys, because there's a world championship the next year."