FUKUOKA, Japan—Chinese baseball took another step forward today, rallying for five runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to beat Brazil 5-2 and secure automatic entry into the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
The game was essentially the Relegation Bowl, with a pair of 0-2 teams with limited baseball history fighting for a victory to avoid having to play a qualifier to be in the 2017 WBC and thus perhaps miss the '17 event altogether.
For most of the game, Brazil appeared to be in control, carrying a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the eighth. That's when suddenly, the free-swinging, light-hitting Chinese team started to show some semblance of an offensive approach, combined with a meltdown by a Brazilian bullpen that's had its lack of depth exposed in Japan's come-from-behind, 5-3 victory on the first day of the tournament.
Weqiang Meng singled to lead off the inning. After Yanyong Yang struck out swinging, Xiao Cui and Xu An drew back-to-back walks to load the bases for three-hole hitter Lei Li. Brazil manager Barry Larkin removed Astros righthander Murilo Gouvea from the game and went to the low-90s fastball of Mariners righthander Thyago Vieira.
Vieira promptly walked Li to make it a 2-1 game. Ray Chang, a 29-year-old who played in Triple-A for the Twins last year and is by far the team's best player, came through with a two-run single to give China a 3-2 lead. After a Fujia Chu groundout, Vieira hit Wei Wang with a pitch to load the bases, prompting Larkin to summon Hugo Kanabushi from the bullpen.
Kanabushi's control was no better, as he issued back-to-back, bases-loaded walks to Zhenhong Lu and Meng to push Brazil ahead 5-2 before 16-year-old Daniel Missaki came on to get the final out of the eighth inning.
"No doubt that was the biggest hit of my life," Chang said. "I've played seven, eight years of professional baseball and I've had some clutch hits in my career, but nothing like this. This is not just for a Single-A, Double-A team, this is for an entire country. We knew how big this game was and you could see the emotions on the guys' faces after the win how much it meant to them. To be able to play a part in that in the end, it's just surreal. I can't even believe it. It's an awesome feeling."
A couple of days earlier, China manager John McLaren had talked about how the team's hitting approach needed to improve and how they rarely worked the count. Certainly the five walks and the hit batsman in the eighth inning were largely due to the control of the Brazilian pitchers vanishing, but the Chinese hitters were able to adjust to the situation.
"We were a different baseball team in the eighth inning," McLaren said. "I've never seen enthusiasm in the dugout like that. There was cheerleading going on, there was chants going on. They stepped up. They did things that we really don't do that well, and they did them well. So that tells us that we can do it. It was a great feeling. Hit batsman, base on balls, a big hit by Ray Chang—we did everything it took to win the game. What we needed to do, we did. It brought smiles to all of them."
The sequencing couldn't have been better for China, which had the bases loaded and the game on the line for their their two best hitters, Li and Chang. With Vieira one of the few pitchers on Brazil who could crack 90 mph and the Chinese hitters lacking bat speed, perhaps the only player in China's lineup equipped to handle the situation was Chang, who despite a .241/.304/.271 batting line in 89 International League games last year at least had experience facing Triple-A pitching with better stuff than Vieira. Chang, who finished the game 3-for-4 with a double and two RBIs, credited hitting coach Art Howe for his helpful advice.
"During the game against Japan, I was trying to do a little too much," Chang said. "He told me just to be myself. I did it and I trusted in myself. I just did what Ray Chang could do. It's just an amazing feeling."
Chang wasn't the only one crediting Howe and the Chinese coaches. While China is far from a threat on the international stage and isn't developing major league prospects yet, several scouts at the game who have followed the development of baseball in China over the last decade have credited McLaren, Howe, pitching coach Bruce Hurst and the other coaches for raising the caliber of fundamentals, skill level and baseball aptitude in China.
"Guys can take back to China that we can play baseball," McLaren said. "We can compete with good teams. We played a good game against Japan, we played a good game against Brazil and we were overmatched against Cuba. Our motto is, 'Get better every day.' "
Few people were at the Yahoo Dome in Fukuoka, Japan to witness the game live. The official attendance was 3,110, a number that must have come from one of Bernie Madoff's accountants because excluding the 25 scouts behind the plate, there were no more than 100 fans in the stadium.
Yet when China recorded the final out of the game, they may as well have just won the World Series. For the Chinese players, this game was their most important of the WBC for China's national team on the international stage and arguably for the long-term development of the sport as a whole in the country.
"It's been a nice ride," McLaren said. "I congratulated the team and I told them to go home and tell everyone in China what a great feeling it is to play baseball and spread the word. That was my message."
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