Bay: Classic builds Canadian baseball

Red Sox left fielder will again lead Team Canada in March event

Jason Bay is expecting an atmosphere at the Rogers Centre similar to what he experienced in the 2008 postseason with the Red Sox. Bay flourished under the playoff spotlight. (AP)

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Like many players, Jason Bay wasn't sure what to expect from the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, but he's been waiting for the second edition of the event ever since Team Canada was eliminated in the first round of the first one.

In 2006, Canada defeated South Africa and provided a stunning upset of the U.S. team. But a loss to Mexico combined with tiebreaker rules to keep the Canadians from advancing to the second round.

"It was disappointing that we didn't get out of the first round, but we beat the U.S. pretty handily in a game nobody expected us to win," Bay said Wednesday of Canada's 8-6 win over the U.S. when asked in a conference call to discuss Team Canada's prospects for this year. "That game did more for baseball in Canada than if we had gone on to the next round."

Team Canada hosts the United States in opening-round play in Pool C at the Rogers Centre in Toronto on the afternoon of March 7. Italy and Venezuela square off that evening. Bay said playing at home should be an advantage.

"I fully expect that place to be pretty packed," said the Boston Red Sox left fielder. "I got a taste of the playoffs last year and I've got a pretty good feeling it will be something like that."

Last year, Bay played in the postseason for the first time following a July trade from the Pirates to the Red Sox.

In '06, Bay went 5-for-11 with five runs scored in the Classic as part of a potent lineup that again will include Justin Morneau of the Twins and Matt Stairs of the Phillies (Stairs was then a member of the Royals). Canada will get a boost from the addition of All-Star catcher Russell Martin of the Dodgers.

The right-handed hitting Martin will be welcome on a roster that three years ago included just two players to hit from that side of the plate, including Bay. That's a reflection on the tendency of many young Canadian athletes to shoot hockey pucks from the left side.

As recently as a decade ago, there were only a few Canadian big leaguers, such as Stairs and Larry Walker. Walker, a former star with the Expos, Rockies and Cardinals, will serve on manager Ernie Whitt's coaching staff for the Classic.

"There are so many impact players at the Major League level now, and that's opening more opportunities for players in Canada," Bay says. "Before, people looked at [baseball] as something fun to do to get ready for hockey. Now they take it a little more seriously."

Some of Team Canada's biggest names, especially among pitchers, will be missing from the WBC. Erik Bedard of the Mariners is recovering from shoulder surgery. Jeff Francis of the Rockies is battling a strained shoulder. The Cubs' Ryan Dempster, though healthy, pulled out of the event to focus on the upcoming MLB season.

"We don't have the depth that a lot of teams do," Bay said. "We're going to need some big-time performances."

Pete Williams is a freelance writer based in Safety Harbor, Fla.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.