Canada v Italy - World Baseball Classic - First Round Group D

It doesn’t take much to turn the tide of a game. It might appear that, in a game which was called in the name of mercy, that one pitch in the first inning made much of a difference. Team Canada simply looked overmatched against the Italian team, a sentence I didn’t think I’d ever have to type again.

The Canadian team failed to capitalize on the starting pitcher who, in the early going, looked overmatched against Canada’s lineup of left-handed batters, many of whom possess serious Major League credentials.

But things got bad for Canada in a hurry, starting with the first batter Canadian pitcher Shawn Hill faced. One call didn’t go Canada’s way and it set an afternoon of pain and suffering into motion.

In the first round of the World Baseball Classic, starting pitchers are held to a firm 65 pitch limit. The longer a starter — ostensibly a better pitcher than the relievers scheduled to follow him — can stay in the game, the better. Shawn Hill lasted just 2.2 innings, giving up two runs on two hits and a walk. He did not strike out any hitters. Well, that isn’t exactly true.

Facing Nick Punto in the first inning, Hill fell behind the lynchpin of last summer’s Red Sox/Dodgers trade before evening the count 2-2. Hill isn’t exactly a swing-and-miss kind of guy, relying on his sinker to get ground balls to get efficient outs. With two strikes against Punto, Hill threw a perfect “front door” two-seamer to the left hand-hitting Punto.

The pitch started at Punto’s front hip before it appeared to break over the inside corner of the plate for a strike. Hill thought it was a strike, stalking off the mound in anticipation of a strikeout. Catcher Chris Robinson thought it was a strike. Even Punto appeared resigned to his fate, beginning his slow walk back to the dugout.

Except for one tiny detail: the strike call never came. Umpire Brian Knight called the pitch a ball. The at bat continued.

Of course, Punto reached on a single and eventually came around to score. Canada got the run back in the top of the second but, the chain reaction began. Hill’s pitch count rose, causing an earlier than anticipated exit. Scott Mathieson, a pitcher who dominated the NPB in 2012, racking up 48 strikeouts in just 42 innings, didn’t have his best stuff.

The rout was on. Canada couldn’t solve the Italian bullpen (thanks in no small part to a bizarre bunt down four runs) and the game ended in the 8th after Italy went up by ten.

One little pitch in the first inning didn’t cause it, but in a short tournament already hamstrung with byzantine rules set in place to appease worrisome MLB general managers, it might be all it takes.

One game, or one poor performance in an international tournament that does not feature a nation’s best and brightest, is not a referendum on the state of the game in a given country. Team USA’s loss to Mexico in the nightcap at Chase Field is not an indictment of the American baseball system. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either foolish or has a separate agenda on their mind.

The American team suffered a similar fate, their high-powered offense unable to mount much of anything against Yovani Gallardo and the Mexican pitching staff. Starter R.A. Dickey couldn’t command his knuckler, allowing four runs and six hits over four innings. Not the worst start in the world but again, in a short tournament with no margin for error, it doesn’t take much.

In Canada’s case, it isn’t so simple. There is certainly available talent not participating in this event. Some top Canadian pitchers chose not to participate as they fight for jobs or integrate with a team. How much would the addition of Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden, and Jeff Francis really make? We’re talking about Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden, and Jeff Francis, after all.

The victories by Italy and Mexico leave the Pool D wide open, with Italy atop the group with two wins after their come-from-behind win against Mexico Thursday. Mexico sits with one win and one loss while Canada and the USA both lost their only game thus far. Canada trails badly on run differential, making their task all the more difficult.

All four teams are in action today, with Canada and Mexico facing off at 2:30 EST while Italy looks to guarantee a spot in the second round when they face Team USA at 9:30 EST. Pool C is already underway, as the Dominican powerhouse already piling on the runs against poor, poor Spain. Puerto Rico and Venezuela play a pivotal game tonight, one the Venezuelans cannot afford to lose.

In Pool 1 second round play, Cuba laid a beating on Chinese Taipei, eliminating the Taiwanese side from the tournament. Cuba faces the loser of tonight’s Japan/Netherlands game with the winner moving on to the semifinals in San Francisco.

The World Baseball Classic is what it is: an extremely short tournament with non-standard baseball rules where one game, one inning, one pitch makes all the difference. The proliferation of bunts and small ball oddities show the extreme emphasis placed on scoring single runs. Waiting around for the three-run homer might not be the ideal strategy when there is no tomorrow (note: it is still better than bunting. In the fourth inning. When down by four runs. I mean, honestly.)