Image credit: (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images)
After a dominating victory to open the World Baseball Softball Confederation Baseball Americas Qualifier tournament on Monday, Team Canada secured its spot in the Super Round with a 6-5 win in a hard-fought battle over Cuba on Tuesday in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Canada and Cuba have met on countless occasions in international competition, and each team has proven time and time again to be a thorn in the other’s side. Tuesday was no different, with the Canadians jumping out to an early four-run advantage, but the two squads battled to a near photo finish in the end.
“It was an unbelievable game,” said Canadian third baseman Eric Wood, who had two hits and drove in a run in the victory. “It was a great atmosphere, back and forth, just hanging on every pitch. Everybody was engaged for every pitch. It seemed like it was a long game in time, but it almost feels like when we play Cuba, they’re always like that. They’re always very hard to put away. It’s hard to get outs, so every one was precious. It was just a good, fun game.”
Added Canadian manager Ernie Whitt: “It’s always exciting when we play Cuba. They’re quite a baseball country and we know that whenever we play them, we’re going to have a battle on our hands, as we did tonight.”
Canada opened the scoring with a three-run first inning and never trailed in the matchup, but a late comeback from Cuba—plating two runs in each of the seventh and ninth frames—made things interesting. The Canadian squad used five pitchers to get through the game after no-hitting Colombia with three hurlers on Monday.
Starter Ryan Kellogg completed 3.2 scoreless innings, and was followed by 2.1 frames of one-run ball from Dustin Molleken. Evan Rutckyj allowed two unearned runs in his inning, and was followed by a solid eighth from Scott Mathieson, before the righthander got into some trouble in the ninth, with two runs coming around to score. John Axford earned the final out of the victory to close the game and eliminate Cuba from moving forward in the qualifier.
“They’re tough outs,” Wood said. “We pitched really, really well today, and we held them down, but … one blow here or there, one little thing here or there, and that game could have gone in a different direction. They’re just very tough to get out.”
First baseman Connor Panas paced the offense with two hits and two RBIs, while right fielder Michael Crouse hit the second Canadian home run of the tournament, a solo shot in the seventh. Canada persisted despite being outhit by the Cuban squad 11 to nine, committing three errors, leaving 11 runners on base, and being the clear underdog in fan support at Clover Park.
“We loved it,” Whitt said. “Everyone loves to hear a crowd. And we missed all of last year, it’s been very quiet in the games that have been played, so it was exciting. We were definitely not the home favorite here. But they pumped us up too. But again, we were playing Cuba, we were pumped up anyway, but we had a hostile crowd out there against us but we overcame it.”
Canada will take on Venezuela on Wednesday afternoon to determine the Group B winner as both countries have already punched a ticket to the Super Round. Wednesday’s decision will carry over into both teams’ Super Round records. The squad with the best Super Round record will earn a spot in the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games.
“To get the crossover, we would love to be 1-0,” Whitt said. “The guys will step up and we’ll do the best we can. We’re going to pull out all the strings, whatever it takes to win. I’m sure Venezuela is going to feel the same way so it should be a pretty good battle all afternoon.”