Canadian teenager Justin Thorsteinson wants to be challenged whenever he steps on a mound.
If that means facing the most feared hitters in the Blue Jays lineup, he’ll take it — gladly.
Thorsteinson, an 18-year-old left-hander with Canada’s junior national program, is scheduled to pitch against Toronto on Thursday in the latest addition of an annual exhibition matchup between the teams at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla.
And he knows exactly who he wants to face when he’s out there.
“Vladdy Guerrero and Bo Bichette,” the Langley, B.C., native said without hesitation.
“Back home with my buddies we talk about what I would throw them if I ever faced them. Honestly, after watching them on TV it seems like they can hit any pitch out so it’s going to be a shot in the dark.
“We’ll see what happens but I’m very excited about it.”
Thorsteinson is slotted in as the second pitcher for Canada on Thursday. The Blue Jays lineup for the game has not yet been announced — another Toronto split squad also plays the Pittsburgh Pirates that day — but third baseman Guerrero and shortstop Bichette both started against the junior team in 2018 and Bichette came in as a pinch hitter in last year’s game.
The matchup with the Blue Jays, now in its ninth year, is the marquee event of the 18-and-under team’s week-long spring training trip.
Thorsteinson didn’t get to pitch against Toronto in his first two years with the juniors in 2018 and 2019. Greg Hamilton, Canada’s head coach and director of national teams, is giving him the assignment now in part because of his MLB draft eligibility as a high school senior this year.
“The environment, the reinforcing factor of facing major league hitters — it’s just a tremendous development experience,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton wasn’t surprised by Thorsteinson’s confidence in wanting to face Guerrero and Bichette. But he wants to see how his young pitcher reacts after that kind of challenge.
“He’s competitive, and that’s a very important — you have to believe in yourself and you have to want a competitive challenge and you have to embrace it,” Hamilton said. ”But you have to have the resiliency to recalculate when things maybe don’t go your way. Wanting to face Bo Bichette is one thing but being successful against Bo Bichette is another thing.
“You want that confrontation, but how do you handle the after effects of it not going so well? Or if it does go well … you can’t get too far ahead of yourself.”
While Thursday will mark Thorsteinson’s debut on the Dunedin stadium’s mound, the two-way player has already experienced a big moment at that ballpark.
He came into the 2018 game as a pinch hitter and hit a single off former Toronto minor leaguer Dalton Rodriguez.
“My parents still talk about that hit,” Thorsteinson said with a laugh. “They were watching at home and they were just in tears seeing their 15-year-old son get a hit off a (professional) pitcher.
“I remember it was my first year on the team. I was nervous, I was young, but it was an unreal experience and getting that hit just put the cherry on top of the whole trip.”
Thorsteinson later saw a video clip of the hit, complete with commentary from Blue Jays broadcaster Buck Martinez, who offered a complimentary assessment of his swing.
“That meant so much to hear that,” Thorsteinson said. “It was one of the best experiences of my baseball career so far.”
Hamilton said Thorsteinson, who’s six-foot-four and 221 pounds, has “a real good feel for a change-up” and a “fastball that has got some life to it.”
He’s shown impressive velocity — Prep Baseball Report lists his fastball maximum at 92 miles per hour — and his developing breaking ball has also shown promise.
“Certainly being left-handed with that size and an arm that works, it’s a good starting point,” Hamilton said.
While Thorsteinson focused more on his pitching than his hitting over the off-season, the teenager isn’t ready to give up the bat just yet.
He intends to continue his two-way player status at Oregon State University, the school he committed to back in 2017. Thorsteinson can decline that commitment, however, depending on what happens at the amateur draft in June.
With MLB scouts watching the junior team in Florida this week, Thorsteinson said he’s trying not to worry about who might be in the stands Thursday.
“I just want to do well this year like every year,” Thorsteinson said. ”It’s important not to overthink when you’re out there because that can only put more pressure on you and you don’t want that.
“I just want to have fun, make the most of it.”
Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press