Prior to the beginning of the 2016 Women’s World Softball Championships, Team Canada head coach Mark Smith said he didn’t expect the pressure of playing at home to adversely affect his team.
“We’ve talked about playing at home. We have to make sure we don’t lose our focus or get distracted,” he told Peace Arch News last week, a day before the tournament was set to begin.
“For the local players, it’s an exciting opportunity to play at home…but once the game starts, your attention just turns to your own performance, and I think our girls will be just fine with it.”
So far, so good – with just one exception, a 6-1 loss to Venezuela Monday night in the first game of championship round-robin play.
Prior to that loss, Canada was a perfect 3-0 through the opening weekend of the tournament, with convincing wins over its three Pool D competitors.
On Friday night after official opening ceremonies, Canada beat Great Britain 3-0, and followed that with a 14-0 drubbing of Ireland Saturday – a game that ended after just three innings on account of the mercy rule – and on Sunday, they wrapped up pool play with a 10-0, four-inning victory over Team Uganda.
The unblemished record earned Canada one of 16 spots in the championship round robin, which began Monday.
Canada was done in by the long ball Monday, with pitcher Sara Groenewegen giving up a pair of home runs in the first two innings – a two-run shot by Yuruby Alicart and a solo bomb by Milagros Lozada.
“I don’t want to blame it on anything, but the wind was blowing out,” said Groenewegen. “Maybe the pitches weren’t really where they needed to be. And they’re also good hitters, so you can’t miss pitches.”
Through four games, Port Coquitlam’s Jenn Salling has been Canada’s offensive catalyst so far – on Sunday she slammed her third home run of the tournament while driving in four runs.
Canada has also been strong in the pitcher’s circle, Monday aside. Groenewegen and Lauren Bay Regula combined to get the win Friday, while Sara Plourde shut down the first eight Irish batters she faced Saturday en route to the win.
After going up 13-0 after just two innings, Canada took its foot off the accelerator the rest of the way.
“You’ve got to be respectful,” said Smith. “The game is not served by 25-0 and 28-0 scores, in my opinion. That does no one good. You’re not here to humiliate. Once we knew we had the game well in hand, it was really just how do we gracefully get all of us out of here and healthy.”
The championship round sees four teams split into four groups. Great Britain, New Zealand, Japan and Chinese Taipei are in Group 1; Australia, Philippines, United States and China are in Group 2; Group 3 consists of Brazil, Cuba, Mexico and Netherlands; while Group 4 is Canada, Puerto Rico, Italy and Venezuela.
The top two teams in each group advance to the round of eight. Group 2 has three podium contenders in the U.S., Australia and China, meaning one of them will not advance.
The logjam in that group came as a result of Australia being upset on Friday by Mexico, 2-0 in extra innings.
Mexico was led by a stunning performance from its U.S.-born ace pitcher, Dallas Escobedo, 24, who struck out 16 in the win over No. 3-ranked Australia.
Prior to Friday’s game, Mexico manager Carlos Bernaldez had never even met his new pitcher, who can play for Mexico due to her father being born there.
It was a stunning upset by Mexico, which went 0-7 at its last worlds appearance in 2012, and just 1-5 at the World Cup in Oklahoma City earlier this month.
“She was awesome, she is what we need,” Bernaldez, breaking into a big grin, said of Escobedo. “We are happy with her, very happy. When you have that kind of pitcher . . .”
He didn’t need to finish the sentence. Adding Escobedo gives a huge boost to Mexico’s goal of a top-five finish at the 31-country tournament.
By finishing atop Pool C after easy wins over Serbia (15-0) and Switzerland (13-0), Mexico avoids a championship round-robin matchup with the U.S. and China – a task now facing the Aussie squad.
After a day off Tuesday, Canada returns to the field today (Wednesday) against Puerto Rico, and Thursday against Italy.
Upon completion of the championship round-robin, the next round – with the top eight teams – begins Friday morning.
– with files from Gary Kingston