Highly anticipated women’s baseball match sees US go 4-0 with victory over host Canada at Pan Am Games

Quite possibly the most anticipated game in preliminary round play in women’s baseball at the 2015 Pan Am Games, undefeated powerhouses Canada and the US took to the diamond. Facing each other in the last game of the preliminaries, it also represented an exciting new chapter in their epic rivalry.

Host country Canada could feel the excitement of the energizing crowd at President’s Choice Pan Am Field in Ajax, Ontario, as they faced their American rivals for the first time at the Pan Am Games. Looking to win their first-ever medal in international play (the best finish for Canada was silver at the 2008 IBAF Women’s World Cup), the match against the United States would prove to be a litmus test of whether such golden dreams were attainable.

Although Puerto Rico and Venezuela cannot be taken for granted in the medal round, Canada and the United States have shown the ability to explode for power during preliminary play. Taking into account Canada’s ability to excel in later innings, as seen in the comeback win against Puerto Rico, a rematch with their American rivals in the gold medal game would not be unlikely.

As each squad already qualified for the medal round, the degree of pressure may not have been as intense but there were strong feelings of national pride for Canada and the US, as both wanted to prevail in this inaugural meeting. Regardless of the victor, neither would have to play each other in the opening match of medal round, allowing this to be an opportunity for adjustments while other roster members may garner playing time as a preparatory measure.

Gaining the start for Canada was Jessica Berube, while the United States countered with Marti Sementelli, who played men’s baseball at the NAIA level. Berube would surrender the initial hit of the night to first baseman Malaika Underwood, who once played volleyball at the NCAA level with North Carolina. Despite the hit allowed, Berube enjoyed a strong start, striking out leadoff hitter Jade Gortarez and designated hitter Tamara Holmes in the first.

Through her first three innings of work, Sementelli managed to keep Canada scoreless despite allowing four hits. Former Ivy League hockey player Amanda Asay and second baseman Nicole Luchanski logged hits, while catcher Stephanie Savoie and right fielder Jenna Flannigan were the other successful hitters. Ashley Stephenson (a member of the Laurier Golden Hawks Hall of Fame) was Sementelli’s only strikeout as the Canadian batters tested her often.

Although four US strikeouts followed for Berube (she would get left fielder Samantha Cobb to fan twice) in the second and third innings, she collapsed in the top of the fourth, allowing three hits and three runs. Tamara Holmes and second generation player Sarah Hudek, whose father John played in the major leagues, both got on base, eventually scoring. After Berube walked second baseman Jenna Marston, Michelle Snyder got a base hit, extending the American lead to a 3-0 advantage.

Despite Sementelli allowing three more hits, including a walk issued to 17-year old Kelsey Lalor, Canada was not able to chip away at the US lead. Berube managed to strikeout seven batters in 5.1 innings pitched, but the third inning proved to be the turning point. Replaced by Claire Eccles in the fifth inning, she was able to keep the US scoreless, despite walking a pair of batters.

Heading into the bottom of the seventh inning, Kelsie Whitmore was brought in to relieve Sementelli, but it did not yield a good result. Stephenson would get her second hit for Canada, as fans were hoping for a rally. Canadian manager Andre Lachance opted for some substitutions afterwards. Kate Psota, an 11-year veteran of the national team was inserted as a pinch hitter for Veronika Boyd. Getting a walk, Psota was replaced by 2014 NCAA Frozen Four champion Daniella Matteucci as a pinch runner.

With a runner in scoring position, Luchanski drove in Stephenson, reducing the US lead to a 3-1 count. The US opted to move Whitmore to right field, replacing her with Hudek on the mound. Striking out Stephanie Savoie, she successfully retired the side, becoming the first female pitcher in the history of Pan Am Games baseball to earn a win (in the opening game against Venezuela) and a save.

One area of encouragement for Canada was the fact that there were five members of the US roster (Gortarez, Cobb, Marston, Brittany Gomez and Anna Kimbrell) that went hitless. In addition, only two members of the US managed more than two putouts (Kimbrell -5, Underwood – 8), while Stephanie Savoie led all Canadian players with seven putouts.

The key stat that Canada has to improve on is the fact that they left seven runners on base. Should Vanessa Riopel or Heidi Northcott take the mound for Canada in a rematch with the United States, the outcome may be more favorable than the 3-1 loss in preliminary round play. For the Canadian team, it would be an opportunity to win double gold in baseball, an unprecedented accomplishment in Pan Am Games history, mirroring Canada’s double gold in ice hockey at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Two-run sixth inning part of Canadian comeback against Puerto Rico in third day of women’s baseball at Pan Am Games

Through the first two innings of play, Puerto Rican pitcher Maria Zayas was hurling no-hit ball. Although no Canadian batter had struck out, she was able to stifle their high-powered offense, one which obliterated Cuba and Venezuela during the first two historic days of women’s baseball at the Pan Am Games.

Getting the start for Canada was two-sport star Kate Psota. One of five members of the Canadian roster who also played elite university hockey, Psota allowed four hits and two earned runs in the first two innings of play.

Leading off for Puerto Rico was left fielder Luz D. Feliciano, stroking a single. It would set the tone early on as right fielder Kiara J. Irizarry drove her in, as Puerto Rico enjoyed the first lead of the game. Before the first inning would expire, first baseman Yinoska Claudio also contributed an RBI, extending said lead.

Psota would settle in the second inning, allowing just one hit to second baseman Katiria Davila. Complemented by a first inning strikeout, Psota demonstrated good control on the mound, considering that she had not yet walked one batter through two innings.

Despite the progress, manager Andre Lachance opted for a pitching change in the third inning. Bringing Melissa Armstrong, she kept Puerto Rico scoreless for three innings. Although Yinoska Claudio managed two hits off her, the Puerto Ricans could not bring her in to score. Armstrong would tally three strikeouts, providing Canada with the chance to comeback.

In the bottom of the third, Canada showed signs of life, breaking the shutout. With Jennifer Gilroy on the basepads, 11-year national team veteran (and former CWHL player) Ashley Stephenson drove her in, logging her first RBI in Pan Am Games play.

After both sides went scoreless during the fourth and fifth innings, Canada took control in the sixth inning. With Melissa Armstrong shutting down the Puerto Rican bats with a six strikeout performance, the Canadians came roaring back to life with a dramatic comeback. Jennifer Gilroy continue to be a factor in the game, as she and Veronika Boyd were on base. With Nicole Luchanski at the plate, she continued her MVP-like performance during the Pan Am Games, bringing them both in on a two-RBI hit.

With Canada claiming its first lead of the game, Puerto Rico opted for a pitching change as Zayas was replaced by shortstop Adrix Y. Paradizo. As a side note, Puerto Rico would make four other positional changes in the inning, shuffling its outfield and bringing in Marleen Gomez as a designated hitter. Despite allowing Canada’s seventh hit, Paradizo was able to prevent any further runs from being scored.

Looking to preserve the lead, Amanda Asay (who played hockey at Brown and the University of British Columbia) took to the mound for her first relief appearance in the Pan Am Games. Although Asay would allow two hits, she would successfully retire the side, as Canada improved to an impressive 3-0 mark.

Five-run first inning propels Canada past Venezuela in Pan Am Games baseball

A five-run first inning would prove to be all that Canada needed as they defeated Venezuela by a 9-3 count. Runs by Nicole Luchanski, Bradi Wall, Amanda Asay, Kelsey Lalor and Jenna Flannigan shattered Venezuela’s confidence. After facing a defeat the day prior against the United States in the first-ever women’s baseball match at the Pan Am Games, Venezuela was hoping to rebound.
Dayvis Cazorla was pulled out of the game in the first inning after allowing four earned runs. Replaced by Esquia Rengel, she would allow one more run in a difficult start for Venezuela.

Former York Lions women’s ice hockey player Autumn Mills showed her versatility with a sterling performance on the mound. Equally adept at playing third base, Mills was part of Canada’s starting rotation at the Pan Am Games. Through three innings, she only allowed one hit, as centerfielder Leona Reyes was the only Venezuelan player to successfully connect off her.

After four consecutive scoreless innings, Canada added to their lead by placing another two runs on the scoreboard. Venezuela would reply by scoring two of their own runs in the bottom of the sixth. Ingrid Escobar, Migreily Angulo and Daily Gimenez would each get hits in the sixth, reducing Canada’s lead.

With Canada facing Lelis Gomez, they extended their lead to seven runs once again with another two-run performance in the seventh inning. Jessica Berube closed out the game for Canada with a relief appearance.

Second baseman Nicole Luchanski would earn two base on balls, becoming the first Canadian to walk twice in Pan Am Games baseball. She would also contribute a solid defensive performance along with RBI’s in the sixth and seventh innings, respectively. In addition, Bradi Wall registered a pair of RBI’s in the game.

Jennifer Gilroy showed why she is a key part of the future for the Canadian women’s team with a remarkable three-RBI performance, complemented by a game-high nine putouts. Except for Veronika Boyd, every other member of the Canadian starting lineup logged at least one hit. Mills registered three strikeouts over six innings pitched while allowing only two earned runs.

Canada and Cuba collide during inaugural day of women’s baseball competition at Pan Am Games

With Canada having won a gold medal in men’s baseball at the Pan Am Games, the Canadian women are aspiring towards a unique and unprecedented double gold. On the road towards such ambitions, host country Canada took to the mound against Cuba. French-Canadian hurler Vanessa Riopel (who has gained celebrity status for her role in a TV advertisement for Maytag) gained the start, while Yanet Cruz was named by Cuba as its starter. Considered one of the aces of Canada’s pitching staff; expect Riopel to gain the start should Canada qualify for the gold medal game.

During the first inning, Dayanna Batista would become Riopel’s first strikeout victim, as the prevailing theme on this day was historic firsts. One inning later, Kelsey Lalor experienced her own brush with history as she became the first Canadian batter to strike out. As a side note, Lalor made a remarkable diving catch in the first, preventing Cuban player Odrisleisis Peguero of an extra-base hit.

Through the first two innings of play, Riopel only allowed one hit as Yurismary Baez connected off her. In so doing, Baez became the first Cuban to earn a hit in women’s baseball at the Pan Am Games. Duplicating such a historic feat for Canada was second baseman Nicole Luchanski. Taking Canada’s first-ever at-bat, she would later record a hit in the third inning, providing the home team with their first of the game.

As a side note, the growing awareness of the national women’s baseball team has resulted in a surge of support. From inspirational speeches by former Canadian female athletes such as Waneek Horn-Miller and Carolyn Waldo, the team was also introduced prior to a Toronto Blue Jays home game at Rogers Centre. In addition, Justine Siegal, chair of the International Baseball Federation’s women’s commission is on-hand during the Pan Am Games to witness history in the making.

The first run of the game would be scored in the top of the third inning as Canada enjoyed the first lead. After adding another run in the fourth, Cuba faced a two-run deficit, struggling to assemble any offensive attack at the plate.

Canadian manager Andre Lachance opted to pull Riopel out of the game in the fifth inning. Her pitching line included 4.2 innings, allowing only two hits, walking two and recording a pair of strikeouts. She would also be credited with Canada’s first-ever win in women’s baseball at the Pan Am Games. Making a relief appearance was second generation pitcher Heidi Northcott, allowing Cuba’s first run of the game as shortstop Mayumis Solano broke the shutout bid.

Heading into the sixth inning, Canada pounded the opposing Cubans with an eight run performance, putting the game out of reach with a 10-1 lead. Cruz would be replaced by Ana Castellanos, who allowed four earned runs and walked two Canadian batters. Yoidania Castro became the third Cuban pitcher of the inning, attempting to curb the Canadian onslaught.

A bloop single by Ashley Stephenson loaded the bases early in the sixth. Lachance would also make substitutions in the sixth providing others with an opportunity to play. Of note, Rebecca Hartley would pinch hit for Veronica Boyd, who was hitless in the game. After getting an RBI-single to make the lead 3-0, Hartley was replaced by Autumn Mills, who assumed a pinch runner’s role.
Of note, Mills would eventually score a run, as Luchanski contributed an RBI single, adding to Canada’s expanding lead. Mills will also be Canada’s starting pitcher in their second game against Venezuela.

Bradi Wall, who logged Canada’s first RBI in Pan Am play during the third inning, would add a double to centre, allowing three runs to score. Subsequently, Lalor reached base on a fielder’s choice as another run scored. Jenna Flannigan would contribute two RBI’s in the inning as the game suddenly became out of reach for Cuba.

In the seventh inning, 11-year veteran Kate Psota pinch hit for Jennifer Gilroy, who also went hitless. Before the inning would expire, Canada added three more runs in the seventh inning as Amanda Asay, Katherine Psota and Flannigan all contributed with RBI singles to extend their lead to a 13-1 margin.

Although Cuba provided a valiant effort, allowing only two runs through five innings, their own struggles at the plate were compounded by four errors in the game.
Statistically, Bradi Wall assembled the best hitting performance of the day with a pair of hits and a game-best four RBI’s. Four players would record two hits in the game, while five players would each score two runs. The only players to accomplish both were Luchanski, Wall and catcher Stephanie Savoie. Along with Jennifer Gilroy, Savoie would also record four putouts. The only member of the Cuban roster to register four putouts was Solano. In between competition, the women’s team plays against top-level teenage boys’ teams from Toronto.

Pan Am Games tune-up tour brings Canadian women’s baseball team to Ottawa

Ottawa Stadium served as one of the stops on the way towards the historic Pan Am Games in Toronto. Competing against the Ottawa Expos, a semi-pro men’s team, the speed of the mne’s game was the ideal preparation in the quest for gold that awaits them in Toronto.

As women’s baseball at the Pan Am Games represents the first time that the game shall be contested in a major multi-national tournament, every edge was crucial for a Canadian contingent that has never won a gold medal in international play.

Autumn Mills (front left) leading a group of Baseball Canada women's national team players to batting practice (Photo credit: Mark Staffieri)

Autumn Mills (front left) leading a group of Baseball Canada women’s national team players to batting practice (Photo credit: Mark Staffieri)

Decked out in black jerseys with Canada emblazoned on the front in red letters, the national women’s team brought a lot of confidence to the diamond, inspired by many of the youngsters in the stands.

The starting lineup (listed in terms of batting order) included Nicole Luchanski at second base, followed by Laurier Golden Hawks Hall of Fame member (and former CWHL palyer) Ashley Stephenson at shortstop.

Catcher Stephanie Savoie was next in the order, while veteran first baseman Amanda Asay (who played hockey at Brown and with the University of British Columbia) batted fourth in the lineup. Fifth in the order was designated hitter Jennifer Gilroy while teenage phenom Kelsey Lalor was sixth.

Autumn Mills, another former hockey player, competed at the hot corner, batting seventh. Becky Hartley was slotted at the number eight position while leftfield Niki Boyd batted ninth. Former Laurier Golden Hawks blueliner Kate Psota earned the start for Canada.

Partial starting lineup for Canadian national women's baseball team on Ottawa Stadium scoreboard

Partial starting lineup for Canadian national women’s baseball team on Ottawa Stadium scoreboard

With Canada as the home team, the Expos came out to bat first. Psota pitched with a lot of confidence, throwing strikes. Scott Adams would connect off Psota, floating a ball past the centerfielder, smacking an RBI triple for the 1-0 advantage.

Another triple would follow, extending Ottawa’s lead by a pair of runs. Alex Poulin would hit deeply off Psota as well, resulted in a sacrifice fly. Catcher Savoie disputed that the Ottawa runner did not tag third base. The umpire showed mercy and called the Ottawa runner out, ending the inning.

Second baseman Nicole Luchanski got the first hit of the game for Canada. Threatening to steal second, Ashley Stephenson hit into a double play. Although Savoie continued her great play, getting a hit to keep the inning alive, slugger Amanda Asay struck out.

Donning number 7, Psota (far right) looks on as jubilant Canada players high-five (Photo credit: Mark Staffieri)

Donning number 7, Psota (far right) looks on as jubilant Canada players high-five (Photo credit: Mark Staffieri)

Getting consecutive strikeouts in the second inning, Psota earned a roar of applause from the crowd. With momentum building, Psota continued a strong performance on the mound. Luchanski would show strong focus as she caught a sharply hit ball off Dave Bathurst for the third out.

Teen phenomenon Kelsey Lalor would hit to the opposite field, getting Canada’s third hit of the game. Stealing second, Lalor placed herself in scoring position. Although Becky Hartley walked, Niki Boyd was thrown out on a bunt, ending any scoring opportunity.

Heading into the third inning, Ottawa continued to add to its lead. After Autumn Mills bobbled a ground ball and a ball was hit past a diving Stephenson, there were runners on first and third. With a double steal providing Ottawa with a 4-0 lead, the game seemed out of reach.

Manager Andre Lachance pulled Psota out of the game after Ottawa extended its lead to a 5-0 mark, opting for Clare Eccles. Throwing a strike as her first pitch, she was able to get Ottawa’s batter to ground out, preventing the runners at second and third from scoring.

With Luchanski hitting into the outfield, Canada was hoping to chip away at Ottawa’s lead and mount a comeback. Although Stephenson had a 3-0 count, she would strike out. Afterwards, Savoie was beaned providing Asay with an opportunity to redeem herself for the earlier strike out she suffered.

Making contact, Asay managed an infield hit as the Ottawa infield seemed unsure where to make the play. Gilroy would hit the ball into the outfield but Canada was not able to score. Boyd followed with an RBI single as Canada enjoyed runners on first and third. After a wild pitch advanced a runner to third, Canada managed to score once again, as the score was now 7-2.

Second generation player Heidi Northcott took to the mound in the fifth inning. Striking out one of Ottawa’s sluggers, she succeeding in getting another to pop out, nullifying the squad’s strong bats. With the fans cheering in approval, Northcott was hoping to inject confidence into the Canadian contingent.

Heidi Northcott approaches the mound (Photo credit: Mark Staffieri)

Heidi Northcott approaches the mound (Photo credit: Mark Staffieri)

With Savoie on the base pads, Asay’s ground ball bounced high into the air, allowing her to advance to third base. Jenna Flannigan would pinch hit for Kelsey Lalor, scoring Savoie. It marked the second straight inning that Canada scored at least one run.

After Northcott shut down the side in the sixth, including a strikeout, there was a feeling that a comeback was imminent. After Becky Hartley logged a walk in the bottom of the sixth, Niki Boyd was beaned. Suddenly, Ottawa seemed nervous as their pitcher struggled with his control.

Although Luchanski hit a pop-fly, Stephenson was also walked, providing Canada with the bases loaded for the first time in the game. With Savoie approaching the plate, Ottawa opted for a pitching change.

Despite Savoie being challenged with a combination of changeups and sinkers, she showed no fear, hitting one deep into centerfield. With the centerfielder possibly losing the ball in the stadium lights, Savoie’s hit bounced in front of him.

Asay followed, getting her second base hit of the game. With the fans ecstatic over such a valiant effort, a wild pitch resulted in two more Canadian runners to score. Suddenly, the score was 7-6 in favor of Ottawa, as their initial 5-0 lead had dwindled into a one run advantage that looked to fade.

Once again, Savoie established herself as a factor. After Bradi Wall stole second, Savoie managed to score on an infield hit tying the score. With such a superlative performance, Savoie made a strong case as Canada’s player of the game.

Jessica Berube was given the ball in the seventh inning (which is also the final inning in women’s baseball). It appeared that manager Andre Lachance was allowing several of his pitchers opportunities for playing time as Berube was his fourth pitcher.

After she beaned two players, the bases were loaded for Ottawa. Although she managed to record two outs, Berube allowed what eventually stood as the game winning run.

Showing no signs of quit, Canada fought valiantly in the bottom of the seventh. With two outs, Luchanski supplied some faith, getting a base hit. Stephenson was hit in the back by a pitch, placing another runner on base. Although she was visibily in pain, she stoically reached first base, refusing to give up. Savoie returned to the plate looking to provide some heroics.

With the fans cheering her on, she hit a ground out, ending a highly entertaining game. Despite the visceral loss, the effort showed by Canada was not only remarkable, but a sign of the strong teamwork within the roster. Graciously signing autographs after the game, the Canadian team certainly made some new fans in Ottawa.

Alberta baseball hero Nicole Luchanski part of Pan Am Torch Relay festivities

One of the feel-good stories of the upcoming Pan Am Games in Toronto is the inclusion of women’s baseball on the athletic calendar for the first time. As host country Canada is a contender for the gold, a victorious outcome may be a coming out party for both the team and the sport, helping propel women’s baseball into the sporting conversation.

Adding to this magical time is second baseman Nicole Luchanski participating in the Pan Am Games Torch Relay. On July 3, which was Day 34 of the Torch Relay, she had the privilege of carrying the Torch during the Calgary Stampede Parade. She was joined by five other athletes during the Parade including wrestler Carol Huynh, women’s hockey competitor (and Calgary Inferno member) Haley Irwin, Canadian national wheelchair basketball member Kendra Ohama, gymnast Kyle Shewfelt and Pan Am medalist in diving, Cody Yano.

Raised in Edmonton, she is one of three Albertans that were named to the Canadian women’s baseball roster. Joining her shall be outfielder Kelsey Lalor (Red Deer) and pitcher Heidi Northcott (Rocky Mountain House). As a side note, all three contributed to Team Alberta’s 2014 victory at the Canadian nationals, marking the first time that the province claimed the gold medal at the Nationals. Taking into account that Edmonton was the host city for the inaugural Women’s World Cup of Baseball in 2004, it served as a source of inspiration for Luchanski, who was in attendance at the historic event.

Two years later, her own baseball dreams would come true, as she not only qualified for the national roster, but contributed to a bronze medal finish. Earning a silver medal at the 2008 edition of the World Cup, she was also the only player to hit a home run in 2012, another bronze medal result for Canada. Having played in five World Cups, one of her unique customs involves getting a photograph with teammate Amanda Asay, who both proudly hold a sign that says “Canada”.

Earning a Bachelor of Science in Forestry from the University of Alberta, she is also a volunteer instructor at the Baseball Alberta Girls Winter Camp, helping to inspire other players to follow in her empowering footsteps. As a side note, national team members such as Autumn Mills and Ashley Stephenson have worked as instructors for the Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Academy.