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Canada's starter against U.S. isn't exactly a classic

His name is Mike Johnson, a journeyman with seven big league wins, and he'll face Jake Peavy in World Baseball Classic opener because Ryan Dempster, Erik Bedard and Rich Harden couldn't make it.

March 07, 2009|Phil Rogers

TORONTO — Talk about conspicuously absent.

With a 17-6 season new to his resume and a $52-million contract sitting in a drawer somewhere, Ryan Dempster could have returned to his native land as a conquering hero. He was set to be the ace for Team Canada in the second edition of the World Baseball Classic but, like too many of his peers, decided to sit this one out.

The Chicago Cubs insisted they didn't pressure Dempster to skip the WBC out of fear he wouldn't have as much to give over the 2009 season. But they sure didn't try to talk him into it either.

As a result, Canada's starting pitcher in today's WBC opener against the United States will be -- well, who will it be?

Turns out it will be the mystery man who was sitting next to Canada Manager Ernie Whitt at a news conference Friday, a chap identified as Mike Johnson. He's 33 and has won seven big league games, the most recent coming with the Montreal Expos in 2000.

Johnson hasn't been in the big leagues since 2001, unless you count his time with the La New Bears of the Chinese Professional Baseball League last season. After all, that's the top league in Taiwan, and Johnson was rewarded for his perseverance with an unexpectedly good year.

Even Johnson admits it's going to be just a little strange to face a U.S. lineup including Chipper Jones, Dustin Pedroia, Ryan Braun and Derek Jeter. He knows he's a fallback choice who will be under enormous pressure trying not to let down a sellout crowd at Rogers Centre, not to mention teammates like Justin Morneau, Jason Bay, Russell Martin and Joey Votto.

"I've been kind of planning toward the WBC since my [elbow surgery in 2005] as being the swan song to my career," said Johnson, who spent 2006 and '07 with independent teams.

"This is my 17th year of playing professional baseball, and this was going to be, like, the final, final stage. . . . It's pretty special and surreal."

Johnson's opponent in the opener of the WBC's Pool C competition will be San Diego's Jake Peavy. He won the National League Cy Young Award in 2007 when Johnson was pitching for the Cracker-Cats in his hometown of Edmonton.

There's nothing wrong with Team Canada's lineup. But Whitt and his hitters have been saddled with a pitching staff that makes them unlikely to survive this double-elimination round, in a pool that also includes Venezuela and Italy.

In his dreams, Whitt was managing a pitching staff that had a starting rotation including Dempster, Rich Harden, Erik Bedard and Phillippe Aumont, with Eric Gagne breathing fire out of the bullpen.

Health and performance issues knocked out Harden, Bedard and Gagne. The Seattle Mariners reluctantly agreed to let Aumont, a 20-year-old stud with world-class stuff, participate, but only in one-inning stints. And Dempster opted for more time in the Arizona sun, picking business before (potential) pleasure.

A lot of baseball's deep thinkers believe the WBC is a risk for players, especially pitchers.

But Tom Lasorda isn't buying it, not with something as corny as national pride on the line.

"When I hear that a guy refuses to play, that disappoints me a great deal because it's an opportunity to do something for your country," said Lasorda, the Dodgers icon who managed the U.S. to a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics. "Coaches don't get medals, [so] people start feeling sorry for me. I say, 'Hey, don't feel sorry for me.' I got my medal when . . . I saw them raise that American flag."

After being eliminated in the semifinal round in 2006, Jeter and his American teammates are looking for reasons to wave flags this time around. They hope to play eight games in 17 days, finishing the job March 23 at Dodger Stadium, and they won't miss Dempster a bit as they take their first step.

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progers@tribune.com

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