The fans had barely settled into their seats at Citizen Field in Prince George when slugger Darren Doucette took a Sonny Gray pitch for a ride into deep centrefield.
It was a hot night on July 22, 2009 at the World Baseball Challenge and Doucette, the designated hitter of the Prince George Westcana Electric Axemen, was sure the ball would leave the park and stopped and watched its flight before he started down the basepath. But the ball hit off the wall and centrefielder Tyler Holt scooped it up and tossed it to shortstop Christian Colon. Doucette beat the tag but took some ribbing for trying to show up the American pitcher.
"I didn't know a whole lot about Sonny Gray, he was a junior at Vanderbilt and I knew he had a good fastball in the mid-90s and a really good change-up and good curveball, so I was trying to jump on first-pitch fastball., and I drove it about 420 feet," said Doucette.
"I admired it, like I normally do, forgetting I was playing in Citizen Field and it hit the top of the wall in death valley there. I ended up with a standup double, which was a little bit embarrassing. Christian Colon was giving me the gears at second base about pimping the home run and I chimed back at him and told him I was playing pro ball when his mom was still wiping his bum."
Four years later, Gray is the playoff ace of the Oakland Athletics' starting rotation. In Game 2 of the division series against the Detroit Tigers, he pitched eight innings of four-hit, no-run ball to get a no-decision in a 1-0 A's victory. That series is tied 2-2 and Gray is the odds-on favourite to start the deciding Game 5 today. The winner advances to the American League championship series against the Boston Red Sox.
"You could tell those guys were going to do good things in baseball and Sonny Gray, for sure," said Doucette.
The American team that came to Prince George in 2009 was stacked with the cream of the U.S. college crop and included four players now involved in the MLB playoffs. Their best-known player at the time was righthanded pitcher Gerrit Cole, then a first-round pick of the New York Yankees.
In Game 2 of the National League division series last week the 23-year-old rightie held the St. Louis Cardinals to just one run on two hits over five innings, striking out five on the way to a 7-1 victory. The Pirates gave Cole his second start of the playoffs Wednesday night in the deciding game of the series ???????RESULTS HERE?????.
Prince George and Team USA came into their WBC matchup with identical 2-1 records. Brooklyn Foster remembers facing Gray in the second inning while playing third base for the Axemen. It ranks right up there among the career highlights for Foster, a 2009 draft pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Then 18 at the time, he delivered one of the four hits Gray allowed in seven complete innings. Foster's fielder's choice hit came right after another local guy, leftfielder Adam Norn had singled.
"It was a hot night and it was a heightened atmosphere, the crowd was into it," said Foster.
"The first pitch from Sonny Gray I hit a fastball, a line drive into left centre. I got my lick in and that was pretty much it."
Kyle Iwata followed up with a single and Foster advanced to second base but was later picked off for the second out. Dustin Bissonnette flied out to end the inning.
"We were seeing guys about to go on to the next level," said Foster. "It was my first [senior international] tournament and it's pretty cool to say I faced those guys. They were kids too, back then."
Twenty-eight of the 37-player Axemen roster were local players and manager Jim Swanson did what he could to get 19 of those homebrews into the game against the U.S.
Brandon Hunter started at centrefield and hit behind Doucette. Gray walked Hunter in the first inning with Charlie Strandland already across home plate on Doucette's double. But the inning ended with Scott Tulloch's fly ball out and Canada ahead 1-0. Michael Choice and Colon homered in the third inning to put the U.S. ahead 4-1 lead in the third inning and they eventually won 10-2. Angelo Desantis brought Scott Schaefer home with the Axemen's second run with a single up the middle off USA reliever Bryce Brentz in the eighth inning, having replaced Doucette as DH.
Hunter still relishes that game but wishes he could have stayed in longer against Gray than his three-at-bats.
"I walked once, flew out to centrefield and grounded out to shortstop -- I was just starting to figure [Gray] out when Jim took me out," laughed Hunter."
Two days later in the first-versus-second playoff game to determine who would advance to the 2009 WBC final, Cole gave up just two hits in Team USA's 1-0 win over Canada. It was a game that easily could have erupted into a brawl.
In the top of the eighth inning, with the U.S, ahead by one run, Canadian left fielder Nic Lendvoy tried to break up a double play at second base took out Colon with a hard slide. The collision broke Colon's leg in two places, and both dugouts emptied. Cole retired the side and ended the game with three strikeouts.
"I was sitting up behind a Rays' scout watching Cole throw, taking a peek at the radar gun and in the eighth inning immediately after they cleared the benches he was consistently 99 or 100 [miles per hour]," said Doucette. "As you can imagine, the adrenaline was flowing a little bit."
The war of words continued as the teams left the field under police escort and both teams continued to exchange unpleasantries when they got back to their rooms at the UNBC residence. Colon was sent on the next flight to Los Angeles, where he underwent surgery and made a successful recovery. He played this season for the Omaha Storm Chasers, the triple-A farm team of the Kansas City Royals, who drafted Colon fourth overall in 2010.
Cole returned to college at UCLA after the WBC and reentered the draft, selected first-overall by the Pirates in 2011. He started this season in triple-A Indianapolis and was called up by the in August, finishing with a 10-7 record and 3.22 ERA.
Wong, a second baseman who got called up by the Cardinals in September, had two at-bats in two playoff appearances in the NLDS. Three other players from that U.S. team are currently on major league rosters. Lefthanded pitcher Drew Pomerantz, who beat Germany in the 2009 WBC final, pitches for the Colorado Rockies. Brad Miller, the backup to Colon in 2009, was the starting shortstop this season for the Seattle Mariners. Yasmani Grandal, the 12th overall pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 2010, was the starting catcher for the San Diego Padres until he was suspended as a result of the Biogenesis investigation into performance-enhancing drugs.