Canada set for must-win World Baseball Classic qualification tournament

Ian Denomme

Three years after a near miss against the United States and an embarrassing loss to Italy, Canada has to take the long road back to the World Baseball Classic.

A Canadian team of minor-leaguers and a few former major-league players begins a must-win qualifying tournament in Regensburg, Germany on Thursday against Great Britain. Anything less than victory in the four-team, double-knockout tournament will mean missing out on the 2013 event.

At the 2009 tournament, Canada, you may remember, lost a 6-5 heartbreaker to the U.S. in front of 42,314 fans at the Rogers Centre. Two days later they lost 6-2 to Italy, knocking them out of the tournament. Finishing outside the top 12 in '09 means Canada must go through the expanded qualifying process for the 2013 event.

Canada's roster features 14 players from the team that beat the U.S. 2-1 to win gold at the Pan American Games in Mexico in 2011. Canada's Game 1 starter, Shawn Hill, pitched in the big leagues for parts of six seasons.

"I am very pleased with the composition of our roster heading into the qualifier. Our roster is a veteran group with a lot of international experience," Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada's director of national teams, said in a release.

Canada, ranked No. 5 in the world, is also paired with teams from Germany and the Czech Republic. Even without its big-league stars, on paper Canada appears to be the strong favourite to win the group. Germany is ranked No. 17; Great Britain No. 24; and the Czech Republic No. 25 in the latest International Baseball Federation rankings. Still, Canada knows first hand that it's not always that easy.

Since baseball was removed from the Olympics after the 2008 Beijing Games, international tournaments take on even more meaning. And because it features rosters of major-league players, the World Baseball Classic is the biggest of them all.

"It's a big deal, in terms of there being no Olympics now," [Chris] Robinson [a catcher from Dorchester, Ont.] said. "The Pan Ams are a big deal, so the World Baseball Classic is a big deal. [London Free Press]

The catch with this qualifier for many of the players is that they could help Canada qualify for the tournament now, then be left off the team once major-leaguers are able to join the team for the March tournament.

But Andrew Albers, a 26-year-old lefty who pitched for the Minnesota Twins' double-A team told Sportsnet's Shi Davidi that he takes any chance to wear the Maple Leaf.

"To be honest, I don't think about it that way at all," Albers said. "I look at it as an opportunity to represent my country and it's an honour to be asked.

"It would be a tremendous honour to play in the World Baseball Classic against the best players in the world, but I'm probably on the bubble for that, and there are some things we need to take care of first to make sure we get there."

Though major success at the World Baseball Classic has mostly eluded Canada (in 2006 it failed to advance despite a 2-1 record and a win over the U.S.), there have been other encouraging results over the past year.

At the Pan Am Games, Canada finished second in its group then beat Mexico in the semi-finals before beating the U.S. for gold. Weeks earlier, at the 2011 Baseball World Cup, Canada rolled through the round robin games with wins over Puerto Rico, Japan and the U.S., then shared the bronze medal with the U.S. after their game was rained out.

Three other qualifying tournaments will determine the 16-team field. South Africa, Israel, Spain and France begin a qualifying event in Jupiter, Fla., on Wednesday. Then in November, Panama, Nicaragua, Colombia and Brazil will face off in Panama. In Taiwan, New Zealand, Philippines, Thailand and Taiwan will battle for the final spot.

The four qualifiers will join the top 12 teams from '09 for the 2013 event which begins in March in eight different venues around the world.