Burnaby pitchers chase national team roles

They share the same dream and the ultimate goal of making it to the major leagues, so it’s no surprise that Burnaby’s Theo Millas and Loreto Siniscalchi have shared a lot of other experiences as boys of summer.

A month ago, the two École Alpha Secondary students were in the same dugout, gleaning lessons and experiences as part of the Canadian national junior (under-18) spring training team in Florida, playing games against the likes of the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies.

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“It’s nerve-wracking every time I do it. This is my third year I’ve (been to a junior national camp), and every time I step on the mound or in the clubhouse it gives me the shakes,” said the six-foot-four Millas. “I know I’ll be fine out there if I work at it and are 100% focused.”

The setting – the national program shared the same diamond and fields as the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Florida  – was picture-perfect for painting corners and throwing hard heat from the mound. Mingling with major leaguers and watching how they approach the game is something that can’t be beat, they said.

“As soon as you get off the bus and walk into the clubhouse – it’s only spring training, but still, it’s a real eye-opener, especially the first time. It didn’t get old to me. It’s surreal to see,” said Siniscalchi, 16.

“It really never gets old. We were shagging BP (batting practice) and I remember sitting there and talking with (Toronto pitcher) Ryan Borowski. It was like, we’re just so lucky to have the opportunity, to have them so easy to talk to and so willing to talk to.”

Siniscalchi, a right-hander, made his debut with the Blaze last year and fanned 57 batters over 42.1 innings for a 2.15 ERA. He recorded a 4-1 record and racked up a pair of saves while splitting time as a starter and reliever.

Seventeen-year-old Millas is considered one of Canada’s top under-18 pitchers, and has been interviewed by Major League teams as they prepared for the 2020 June draft. The right-hander, who went 6-1 with a 1.34 earned run average over eight starts last season as a second-year veteran of the B.C. Premier Baseball League’s Langley Blaze, has committed with Louisiana State for this fall.

For MLB scouts, the challenge of drafting is all in the projection – what will a 17-year-old who can touch 93, 94 miles per hour be like in five years’ time? The player has learned that every new challenge is a growth opportunity.

“My first time (with the junior national program), you’re the best player on your team like everyone else,” recalled Millas. “I was one of the youngest guys, in Grade 10, and it was a whole new environment for me. I was like the quieter guy, a rookie. We had a few (MLB) first round draft picks on the team, so they seemed scary and I didn’t want to mess around with them. I was a scared little kid trying to mind my own business.”

While they were playing the Blue Jays on March 12, news came down that the camp – and all of North American professional sports –  would come to an early end due to COVID-19.

“It was heartbreaking here, to have all of baseball cancelled. It was not a good time, we were starting up and getting excited for the season,” Millas said of the Blaze. “We can’t even practise with the team. Thank God I have an older brother (Nicholas) who played baseball at New Mexico junior college, so we go out to the local park two blocks out and play long toss and (he) catches some flat ground for me.”

The camp was to help the coaches – whose ranks include former MLB players Jeff Francis, Scott Mathieson and Peter Orr – decide the 20-player roster for the fall junior world qualifier tournament in Mexico.

For Siniscalchi, who threw a no-hitter against defending champ Whalley in the 2016 Canadian national final to catapult Hastings Little League to the World Series, standing on the pitching mound is a moment to revel in.

“When you get to that level everyone can throw the ball, everyone has some sort of talent,” said Siniscalchi, whose fastball has been clocked at 91 mph. “I think what separates me is my composure; ever since I was young it’s always been a strength of mine. Sometimes there are thousands of people watching, sometimes only a hundred, but when (the scouts) have that radar gun sticking at you and their notepads out – for some people it isn’t easy, but I really enjoy those moments.”

In his third season as part of the national junior program, Millas said those high-pressure situations are part of pursuing the MLB dream. Last summer, as the lone Canadian invited to the Under Armour All-American Game in Chicago, he received a prime taste of what so many are chasing.

“It was just a crazy experience, being able to step onto Wrigley Field and play with 30 of the best young players in the world,” he recalled. “It was just incredible. I was the only Canadian and only 14 (Canadians) have ever attended, and I’m pretty proud to say I was one.”

His turn on the legendary diamond saw him take to the mound and throw a clean slate – one inning, three outs on six pitches.

All though time seems frozen and in lockdown, the end of isolation and social distancing will come. Then the games will resume, and Millas and Siniscalchi, like their teammates, will get back on the diamond.

The pair is hopeful that they will be among the 20 named to compete at the world junior qualifiers and help Canada advance to the next world championships, scheduled for next summer in Florida.

“Putting on the Canadian jersey is always something cool. I take a lot of pride in that and it’s definitely a confidence booster,” said Siniscalchi.

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