By Larry Milson
TORONTO – As manager of Team Canada, Ernie Whitt has been part of two big upset victories over the United States.
The first came in the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg and the other came at the 2006 World Baseball Classic in Phoenix.
But what could have been the sweetest of all on home turf barely eluded Whitt and Team Canada on Saturday before a crowd of 42,314 at Rogers Centre. A ninth-inning rally fell short and Team USA held on for a 6-5 victory in the opener of the World Baseball Classic for both teams.
“Well, we owed them a little payback,” Team USA manager Davey Johnson said. “They’ve got some great major-league hitters in that line-up and a lot of them.”
In an electric atmosphere with the crowd chanting “Let’s Go Canada,” J.P. Putz induced the game-ending fly to right field from Jason Bay with a 3-2 count and the potential tying run at second base.
“That 3-2 count with Bay, the crowd was going crazy, it was deafening out there,” said Putz who has never played in the postseason and said it was the most intense atmosphere he’s been involved in. “It was a great feeling being out there being in that atmosphere and playing for your country. It was great.”
By retiring Bay, Putz cut off the Canadian rally at one run after he allowed consecutive one-out doubles by Russ Martin and Joey Votto who also hit home runs in the game. He also avoided facing Matt Stairs, who has hurt him before and was on deck.
Team USA had two-run home runs by Brian McCann and Adam Dunn and a solo homer by Kevin Youkilis to overcome Canada’s 1-0 and 2-1 leads.
“We kept the crowd involved, we had our chances and we just came up a little short,” said Whitt, a former Toronto Blue Jay catcher and coach who will manage the Philadelphia Phillies entry in the Class A Florida State League in Clearwater this season.
Team Canada knows it will depend on its hitting because the staff lost such pitchers as Rich Harden and Jeff Francis to injury and Ryan Dempster decided to concentrate on spring training with the Chicago Cubs.
Mike Johnson, 33, who has not pitched in the majors since 2001 and was 20-2 in Chinese Professional Baseball League last season, was Team Canada’s starter and took the loss. He allowed four runs, three walks and four hits that included the home runs by Youkilis and McCann in the fourth inning.
“M.J. did a nice job for us,” Whitt said. “He got behind some hitters in the second inning but then came back. He threw strikes and that’s what we want him to do. The home run that McCann hit, he was trying to cut the ball in on him and it came back over the plate.”
Dunn’s homer came in the sixth inning against Chris Begg.
Team Canada scored two runs against starter Jake Peavy who in three innings allowed two runs, three walks and two hits that included Votto’s homer. LaTroy Hawkins allowed one walk in his only inning, the fourth, to pick up the win.
Righthander Philippe Aumont, just turned 20, who was taken by the Seattle Mariners with the 11th pick overall in 2007, made a big imprecision as he pitched out of a bases loaded jam with none out in the seventh to keep Canada within two runs.
After Aumont loaded the bases on two hits and walk, he retired David Wright on a bloop to short stop and struck out Youkilis and Curtis Granderson.
Aumont’s first professional season was with Class-A Wisconsin last year when he was 4-4, 2.75, in 15 starts games, eight of them starts. He was hampered somewhat in the season with an elbow problem that he believes was tendinitis.
“Here is a (20)-year-old kid going out there in front of 40,000 people, probably the biggest crowd he’s ever faced and his composure is great,” Whitt said, “He got himself into a situation that you know we were touch and go on because we were told that he was no supposed to throw more than 25 pitches. And it was like that 25th pitch he struck the guy out.
“I’m going, ‘what do I do?’ I mean, what if he fouls that pitch off, do I take the guy out or what? I was in deep discussion with (bench coach) Greg Hamilton and he said ‘you know you’re going to have to wear this with Seattle if he has to throw an extra pitch.
“But this is a great character builder for him, I think. I shows that he can play on this stage.”
“Today I proved I can do something special,” Aumont said. “I play against A-ball guys and I’m facing Chipper Jones, David Wright, all these all-stars.”
Canada, the visiting team for game purposes, scored in the first on Justin Morneau’s groundout that brought home Martin from third. Martin walked with one out and took third on Votto’s single. A walk and a hit batter loaded the bases for Mark Teahen who ended the inning by striking out.
McCann’s sacrifice fly in the second made it 1-1, scoring Youkilis who led off with a walk, took second on Dunn’s walk and third on Ryan Braun’s fielder’s choice grounder.
Votto’s home run with one out in the third put Canada into a 2-1 lead. Youkilis tied it with a leadoff homer in the fourth. McCann homered with one out in the inning after Dunn’s walk to give the United States the 4-2 lead.
Bay, who walked and went to third on Teahen’s one-out double, scored with two out on Joel Hanrahan’s wild pitch.
Begg who entered the game in the fifth gave up Youkilis’s leadoff walk and Dunn’s homer in the sixth to put Team USA into a 6-3 lead.
Canada moved to within two runs after Martin homered with one out against Scot Shields in the seventh.
Lefthander Dave Davidson , who has two major-league outings in his career for the Pittsburgh Pirates, two struck out Jones to end the eighth, leaving the bases loaded.