WBC buzz on menu at Baseball Canada awards banquet

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After a two-year absence because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Baseball Canada’s annual awards banquet returned to the Northern Lights ballroom at the Rogers Centre on Saturday night.

Among the honourees were the Cleveland Guardians brother act of Josh and Bo Naylor (Special Recognition Award); Atlanta right-hander Mike Soroka (Stubby Clapp Award) for his work ethic and determination in rehabbing from a second torn Achilles tendon; and Adam Loewen (Wall of Excellence), who pitched in the big leagues in Baltimore, came back as an outfielder with the Blue Jays and then returned again to pitch with Philadelphia.

Talk quickly turned to the World Baseball Classic, which will be played this March.

Canada will play in Pool C in Phoenix — along with the United States, Mexico, Colombia and Britain — and open up against the Brits on March 12.

“It’s an incredible opportunity,” said Josh Naylor, the Mississauga-born slugger who broke through with 20 home runs in his first full season in the big leagues in 2022. Two of those big flies came in a record-setting performance against the White Sox on May 9 in which he drove in eight runs from the eighth inning on, including a game-tying grand slam with two out in the ninth.

“You get to face the best of the best all around the world,” said Naylor, 25, whose brother Bo is set to be Canada’s starting catcher. “It’s super cool — the environment, the crowd, how intense it gets. It’s almost like every game has a Game 7 type of feel.”

The younger Naylor brother — but not the youngest (17-year-old Myles is the top-ranked Canadian for the 2023 MLB draft class) — got his first eight big-league at-bats last October, after the Guardians had clinched the AL Central title. He’ll be just three weeks past his 23rd birthday when the tournament begins.

“I’m just trying to stay as level-headed as I can,” said Bo, who plans to lean on Josh. “He’s given me some insights, a lot of stuff to look forward to. I’m really just trying to be someone the team can look forward to being an impact player, and most of all having fun with it with a great group of guys.”

He will also get to learn from one of the best to ever strap on the catcher’s gear for Canada. Russell Martin has joined manager Ernie Whitt’s coaching staff as Naylor’s tutor.

“It’s like I’m throwing myself into being a rookie again,” said Martin, the 14-year major leaguer who helped guide the Jays to the post-season in 2015 and ’16. “I’ll be doing something that I’ve never really done, but I get to share a little bit of the knowledge that I’ve acquired and help out the future. And I get to put on a uniform; haven’t done that in a while.”

Martin has plenty of knowledge to share with Bo, Cleveland’s minor-league player of the year and former MVP of Canada’s national junior team.

“Game planning,” said Martin. “(I can) help out with, ‘How do we get this guy out?’ or ‘We’re not going to take on this guy.’ If the catcher has questions on game strategy, or maybe a couple of different techniques receiving-wise, whatever I can help out with, I want to help out with.”

While Martin will be on the bench, some of his former Baseball Canada teammates are going to try to help out on the mound if they can, including right-hander John Axford. The 39-year-old landed a minor-league deal with the Jays after pitching well for Canada at the Olympic qualifiers in 2021. But with no room in the big-league bullpen, he was traded to Milwaukee, where he tore the UCL in his right elbow in his first appearance in the majors in three years.

“It just felt so surreal,” Axford said of the 22-pitch outing on Aug. 2, 2021. “I landed (in Milwaukee) at 10 a.m. and I blew my elbow out by 10 p.m. the same day. That’s not the way this is supposed to go. It’s supposed to be the dream and the way I wanted it to end, and it just didn’t. I heard very early that nobody really gets to write the ending of their career. Baseball or your body makes the decision for you, and that’s it. And then you never get another shot.”

The Port Dover, Ont. native probably has enough left to get a big out or three, and go out in a more fitting fashion. Whitt, back at the helm for a fifth time, certainly believes in the big righty and a couple of veteran left-handers in Loewen and Andrew Albers, all former Jays.

“We’re hoping to get all three of them,” said the 70-year-old Whitt, the last of the original Jays to wear the uniform as a player. “We could use that experience in the bullpen.”

When the tournament begins on March 8, Whitt will become the only person ever to manage in all five WBCs.

“I’m very honoured that they asked me to do it,” said the self-described baseball rat. “It’s been an honour and I wouldn’t change anything. It’s been unbelievable.”

Mike Wilner is a Toronto-based baseball columnist for the Star and host of the baseball podcast “Deep Left Field.” Follow him on Twitter: @wilnerness

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