Henderson, Axford close out win for Canada
Brewers relievers shut down teammates after four-run eighth-inning rally
PHOENIX -- Brewers reliever Jim Henderson reported to Maryvale Baseball Park on Tuesday, just like most days in Spring Training. Only this time, he dressed in the visitors' clubhouse and wore the red and white of Canada instead of the blue and gold of the Brewers.
Then he pitched against the guys who are usually his teammates, teaming with John Axford to work the final two innings of Canada's 7-4 exhibition win over the Brewers.
Was it all a little strange?
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"No, actually," Henderson said. "I've done this for years already, and it's always a proud moment to strap on this uniform and get after it with these guys."
Henderson contributed a scoreless eighth inning, escaping a scare when Brewers prospect Josh Prince hit a warning track flyout with two runners on base. Axford followed for the ninth and worked around a pair of two-out singles for the save.
Canada will play another exhibition against the Reds on Wednesday before opening the tournament against Italy on Friday afternoon.
"I felt quite a bit more amped up than I do during other Spring Training games," Axford said. "It's the first time in 10 years for me, putting on this uniform, so I'm really excited. I sound like a broken record, but I think that shows how excited I really am. I was a kid, just turned 20 years old, still in college when I played for them, and it was just a quick, best-of-three series in the Pan Am [Games] qualifier. Now, it's great to put this uniform on and play on the stage we're going to play on."
Axford is a bit late to the party for a nation that has risen to baseball respectability in recent years. Henderson notes with pride that since 2009, Canada has medaled in every major tournament it's entered, including a stunning gold at the 2011 Pan American Games. Each member of that team was inducted last year into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
Now Henderson is a member of Team Canada again, along with three Brewers teammates (Axford and infielder Taylor Green, plus Minor League outfielder Rene Tosoni) and some other well-known names. The middle of Canada's lineup for the Classic will feature a pair of league MVPs (the Reds' Joey Votto and the Twins' Justin Morneau) followed by budding Blue Jays star Brett Lawrie and Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders.
Canada's starting pitcher for Tuesday's exhibition was 6-foot-6 right-hander Jameson Taillon of the Pirates, the 15th best prospect in baseball, according to MLB.com. Axford, Henderson and the Phillies' Phillippe Aumont give Canada a hard-throwing bullpen.
Their first goal is advancing past the first round, something Canada failed to do in the 2006 and 2009 Classics. They are in Pool D with the U.S., Mexico and Italy.
"After our first workout [on Monday], I just like the edge that our players have right now," Canada manager Ernie Whitt said. "I like the fact that their intentions are that we are going to move on. It's a close-knit group out there. Hopefully, we will take it out in the field."
Said Henderson: "We're starting to build a reputation, which is awesome."
They added to that reputation on Tuesday by defeating a Brewers team hit particularly hard by tournament departures. Even with infielder Jeff Bianchi's withdrawal from Team Italy because of a groin injury, the Brewers have 13 players on Classic rosters, including nine members of their 40-man roster.
Still, the Brewers were six outs away from a win over Team Canada after outfielder prospect Khris Davis hammered a long home run in the bottom of the seventh inning, connecting against left-hander Andrew Albers for a solo shot that cleared the outfield berm in left-center field.
The Canadians came back in the eighth against Brewers left-hander Michael Gonzalez, one of the key pieces in Milwaukee's offseason bullpen overhaul. He was touched for four runs on three hits, two walks and a run-scoring wild pitch.
"We're going to grind out at-bats," said Saunders, who hit a solo home run in the fourth inning off Wily Peralta, the Brewers' top prospect. "I think we're going to compete with anyone."
Second baseman Pete Orr led the way for Canada with three hits and two runs scored. Morneau was hitless in two at-bats but worked a third-inning walk from Brewers starter Chris Narveson with the bases loaded to put Canada on the scoreboard.
"They've got a great lineup," said Narveson, who struggled in the third inning when he began incorporating his curveball for the first time this spring. "You've got a bunch of All-Stars on there. They can give a lot of teams a run for their money."
Much of the credit for Canada's rise, Henderson said, goes to their "unquestioned captain" -- Morneau -- whose status as team leader was evident when he publicly criticized Pirates catcher Russell Martin for withdrawing from the tournament. Martin wanted to play shortstop.
Canada's shortstop, incidentally, is Tigers prospect Cale Iorg, whose trip to Maryvale Baseball Park on Tuesday meant some quality time with his dad. Garth Iorg is the Brewers' first-base coach.
Morneau had a bit more fun with his captaincy on Monday, inviting his Canadian teammates to his home for a barbecue and some street hockey.
"Canadians in baseball, I think we've come a long way in the last handful of years, and it's guys like [Larry] Walker and Votto and Morneau who are kind of paving the way, and making us realize we're not just a hockey country," Saunders said. "Scouts are definitely all over Canada now because they know we produce some baseball players. We're coming here to win."