* The class-A Lansing Lugnuts have the most Canucks on opening day of the 2015 season with RP Andrew Case (Saint John, NB), from left to right, LHP Shane Dawson (Drayton Valley, Alta.) and C Justin Atkinson (Surrey, BC). Meanwhile, RHP Tom Robson, (Ladner, BC) opens the season on the disabled list.
By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
LANSING, Mich. – Just a couple hours from the border, and not coincidentally the residence to an affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, Lansing is the home of the most Canadian Opening Day roster in all of baseball.
When the minor-league season opens on Thursday, the Lugnuts – who play an exhibition game before officially kicking off the year on Friday – will house four Canucks in Surrey, BC’s Justin Atkinson, Saint John, NB’s Andrew Case, Drayton Valley, Alta.’s Shane Dawson, and Ladner, BC’s Tom Robson, who begins the year on the disabled list as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery last July.
Lansing’s three active players from north of the border have a variety of experience at different levels, and in turn had varied reactions to their upcoming time in the Midwest League.
After a successful season last year for Case with the short-season Vancouver Canadians, where the 22-year-old right-hander posted a 2.45 ERA over 24 appearances and 44 innings, with 13 walks and 37 strikeouts, he spent spring training looking forward to moving up the organizational ladder and getting to a full-season team for the first time.
But when the rosters were first posted, it appeared as though the 6-foot-2, 190-pound hurler was going to be staying in Dunedin, Fla. at extended spring training. He was disappointed, but knew there was nothing he could do but work harder for what he wanted.
“My emotions were down actually, when I knew I was staying there [in Florida],” Case said. “But I took what the coaches said, ‘If you don’t like it, play better,’ and that’s my mentality. I just wanted to get back on the mound and prove the point that I should be there. So I did it and it worked out and I’m happy …
“The last couple days I actually still didn’t think I was coming. Then I went in the clubhouse one day and my name was changed. From there on out, I had a different mentality for the last couple days of spring. I’m happy to be here and start another year on the right foot, where I want to be.”
Dawson started last season in the same spot he’s in now, and the 21-year-old southpaw posted a 3.38 ERA over 14 games – 10 starts – and 56 innings before being sidelined with a sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. With his injury behind him, he’s ready to leave the Lugnuts behind him and continue his progression.
“Last year I was not the same pitcher,” he said. “I was dealing with my elbow the whole time. I feel like if I stay healthy and my arm feels good, I can go a long way…
“I’m most excited about proving myself. I feel like I have a lot to prove this year, just like I do every year. You’ve always got to pitch like there’s a chip on your shoulder … I just want to do whatever I can to get out of here as fast as I can. I know what I have to do to get out of this league – pitch to my capabilities.”
Atkinson is also making a return to the capital of Michigan, where last year the 21-year-old utility player hit .291/.336/.355 with one home run, eight doubles and three triples in 77 games, battling a wrist injury on two separate occasions. Playing the majority of his games in the infield previously in his career, the Blue Jays have added a position to Atkinson’s resume, and he could see time as a catcher with the Lugnuts.
“I’m the third catcher,” Atkinson said. “[Behind Danny] Jansenand [Michael] De La Cruz … I don’t think I’m going to be specifically a catcher only. It’s going to be the same as last year but I’m going to catch as well. It won’t be hard this year because I did it last year [and] in spring training I did a lot of catching. I feel more comfortable back there.”
For now, Dawson returns to the rotation in Lansing, and will get his first start on Saturday during the squad’s doubleheader against the Lake County Captains. Case will join the relief corps, and looks to take advantage of his first opportunity with the Lugnuts.
“I expect to be in the [bullpen], as I always am,” Case said. “That’s where my happy spot is and that’s where I’ll be … My goals for the season are obviously I want to stay here and not get sent down. But if Vancouver ever needs me again, I’ll be happy to go. Obviously the goal is to play here and play well, and maybe make the next step to Dunedin [with the Class-A advanced Blue Jays] in a year.”
Robson isn’t likely to join his Canadian teammates in Lansing anytime soon, completely his rehabilitation at the Bobby Mattick Training Center in Florida. Throwing a bullpen for the first time on March 13, after having surgery on July 15 last year, the 21-year-old righty is scheduled to get back into competition just two months from now.
“I’m eight months out now and I’ll throw bullpens for the next eight to ten weeks,” Robson said at spring training in March. “Once I’m done that, then I’ll go into [throwing] live [batting practice], then games, and then I’ll be good to go from there on. I’m slated to start being back in games at the start of June.”
Each of the players from the Great White North are already very familiar with the other Canadians they will suit up with this season. Dawson and Case first met at the Prairie Baseball Academy and are roommates in Lansing, both with simple explanations of how the other will find success this year.
“He played the year after I did at PBA, and I worked out with him a couple times before he signed,” Dawson said of Case. “He’s a strike thrower and a competitor and that’s it. That’s all you have to be. If you throw strikes, you’ll be fine, and if you’re confident in your stuff, you’ll be fine.”
Added Case: “Dawson is Dawson every day. Obviously I know him better and now we’re living together this year, so it’s good. We’ve become closer as the years have gone on, but I’ve known him for a couple years since PBA out west. Daws is Daws. That’s it.”
Robson and Atkinson knew each other long before playing side by side for the Canadian Junior National Team, growing up not far from one another. And during spring training, the catcher among the group had a chance to form a few all-Canadian batteries with the pitchers.
“He’s caught me in a couple of bullpens,” Case said of Atkinson. “It’s fun throwing to another Canadian. I’m getting to know him better still but he’s a good guy, great teammate, and it’s going to be good having him in the bullpen this year.”
Added Atkinson: “I’ve caught Shane a couple times. He just spots up and obviously he mixes. He’s going to get mad at himself but I’m just going to let him do that because that’s who he is. I caught Case once and he was just getting his work done. I caught him in a game and he got a lot of ground balls. That’s what you want out of a pitcher.”
Ready to start the season, with an exhibition game Thursday afternoon before Midwest League action begins at Cooley Law School Stadium the following night, the Canucks are excited for what lay ahead.
“I feel like this team is stronger than last year’s,” Atkinson said. “We’ve got a lot of new guys, a couple returning guys. For myself, I want to play as many games as I can and obviously everyone’s goal is to stay healthy. I want to help this team get to the playoffs.”
CANADIAN BLUE JAYS MiLB NOTES: Rehabbing with Robson in Florida is Markham, Ont., native Jordan Romano, who had Tommy John surgery on March 31 and will be out for the entirety of the season … They were both joined at extended spring training by Ajax, Ont.’s Sean Ratcliffe, the last Canuck to report to Toronto camp this year … The Dunedin Blue Jays have one Canadian on their roster to start the season, with Peterborough, Ont. native and catcher Mike Reeves in the Florida State League … The Buffalo Bisons have two Canucks in the rotation, with North Battleford, Sask.’s Andrew Albers making the Opening Day start for the squad on Thursday, and North Delta, BC’s Jeff Francis getting the ball on Monday.