Canada's staff inexperienced but proud
Without Major League names, young rotation hopes to compete
By Trevor Aaronson / Special to MLB.com
The 22-year-old pitcher from Ontario, Canada, could hear the announcer rattling off the Yankees' first five batters: Melky Cabrera, Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira, Hideki Matsui, Xavier Nady.
"This is going to be an adventure," Diamond remembered thinking to himself.
Until Thursday, the hard-throwing left-hander had never faced big league hitters. Yet here he was, taking the mound as the starting pitcher for Canada's World Baseball Classic team in an exhibition against the New York Yankees.
Diamond benefited early from Team Canada's offense as well as Yankees starter Joba Chamberlain's inability to find the strike zone. As Diamond was handed the ball in the bottom of the first inning, he looked up at the scoreboard to see a six-run lead.
"I was lucky," Diamond said.
In the end, using six pitchers, Team Canada won, 6-0, limiting the Yankees to four hits.
In order to succeed in the 2009 World Baseball Classic -- which for Team Canada begins on Saturday in a game against Team USA at Rogers Centre in Toronto -- the Canadians will need to duplicate Thursday's formula of giving an inexperienced pitching staff as much offensive support as possible.
Indeed, Team Canada's greatest weakness is pitching. The team does not have a single starting pitcher on a Major League roster, though default ace Scott Richmond is vying for a spot in the Toronto Blue Jays' rotation. As a result of his inexperienced pitching staff, Team Canada manager Ernie Whitt has been forced to cobble together a rotation and bullpen made up of young prospects.
Owing to injuries or club commitments, Canada's best pitching talent wasn't able to join this year's Classic team. Ryan Dempster and Rich Harden of the Cubs, Eric Gagne of the Brewers, Jeff Francis of the Rockies and Erik Bedard of the Mariners were all unable to wear the Maple Leaf for the 2009 Classic.
Although he hasn't determined a starting rotation for the international tournament, Whitt turned to Richmond, Vince Perkins and Diamond to form a starting rotation in three exhibition games in Florida.
The trio had mixed results.
Richmond, a rookie at 29 years old, allowed two runs on four hits, while striking out two and walking one in 2 2/3 innings against the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla.
Perkins, a 27-year-old who most recently played for the Camden Riversharks of the Atlantic League, allowed two hits and three runs in 2 1/3 innings against the Phillies in Clearwater, Fla.
Diamond, making his first appearance as a big league pitcher, fared the best, throwing two hitless innings, with two walks, two strikeouts and one wild pitch.
Perkins, for one, acknowledged the pressure on the pitching staff to perform, since Team Canada's lineup is among the best the nation has assembled for international play. The middle of Canada's order includes Jason Bay of the Red Sox, Justin Morneau of the Twins, Matt Stairs of the Phillies and Joey Votto of the Reds.
"I think it's as good a hitting lineup as anybody," Perkins said. "It just means us pitchers have to step it up."
And that means stepping way up for such young, inexperienced pitchers as Diamond, who expects to play next season for the Mississippi Braves, the Double-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves.
"It will be the first time I've been in Rogers Centre other than being a fan," Diamond said of Canada's Classic opener on Saturday.
In fact, in the visitors' clubhouse at Steinbrenner Field after pitching two scoreless innings against the Yankees, Diamond recalled once going to Rogers Centre for a friend's 10th birthday. The Yankees were playing the Blue Jays, and Derek Jeter hit a ball that landed right behind the young Diamond.
"I still regret not catching that ball," Diamond said.
Now, with Jeter the captain of Team USA, Diamond could have a very different Rogers Centre encounter with the shortstop. Diamond might have to face him from the mound.
Whitt won't acknowledge any trepidation about his pitching staff. It doesn't matter what the team looks like on paper, he said -- it only matters what the team looks like when it's in the field.
"There are a lot of teams that -- on paper -- are better than us," Whitt said. "Every player in there, every person on the coaching staff, we feel we can beat the U.S. on Saturday."
Trevor Aaronson is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.