BY RICCARDO SCHIROLI
TAICHUNG, Taiwan—The Canberra Cavalry are the first non-Asian team to win the Asia Series, beating the Uni-President Lions 14-4 behind seven RBIs from Blue Jays minor leaguer Jack Murphy.
"Since we won it, people are not going to say it's a great tournament,” Murphy said.
But it was a unique tournament, played in Taiwan and sponsored in part by plenty of TV money.
The champions of the Australian Baseball League were invited to revive a tournament that was born with great expectations—meant to be the equivalent of the Caribbean Series—as the Konami Cup in 2005, but almost didn't survive the company’s decision to end its sponsorship.
Starting with the 2013 edition, the organizers have also invited the winners of the European Championship, which in 2013 was the Italian franchise Fortitudo Bologna.
The six-team tournament was a disappointment for the favored Rakuten Golden Eagles, champion of Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball, who lost in the semifinals in 10 innings against the winners of the Chinese Professional Baseball League, the Uni-President Lions. Rakuten manager Hoshino had warned: "Our guys are tired, it's been a demanding season."
The Uni Lions thought they had all it took to win. They had beaten the Korea Baseball Organization champions, the Samsung Lions, in the best game played in the tournament in front of more than 17,000 fans in Taoyuan (another 10-inning drama), and after the win against Japan, their ace starter Nelson Figueroa (a nine-year MLB veteran) made the fans erupt into cheers in his game MVP press conference when he said, "This is for you."
It’s been a terrific season for Figueroa; he pitched Puerto Rico past the United States in the World Baseball Classic then joined Uni-President and was its best starter.
But nobody took Canberra too seriously amid all the other champions. "I understand we are not the highest regarded players," said Murphy, 25, after he was named MVP of the final and of the tournament. "But we play as a team."
"We knew it was going to be hard, but we definitely came here to win,” manager Michael Collins said.
The Uni Lions had started their ace Pan Wei Lun and had their top reliever Boof Bonser, a righthander with more than 100 appearances in the major leagues, fully rested.
But Murphy, who beat the Samsung Lions with a two-run homer in the 10th, drove in seven runs (including the first two) in the final. He sealed the win on a grand slam in the eighth.
"I do not hit many home runs," said Murphy, a 2009 31st-round pick out of Princeton who reached Triple-A in 2013. "But I hit them at the right time."
The winners received $13 million Taiwanese (about $250,000 in U.S. dollars), giving an idea about how seriously the Chinese Taipei Baseball Association took the tournament.
The tournament was not intended as a one-off, but its future is uncertain, especially because of timing. Bologna flew to Taiwan on Nov. 12 after their final game in Italy was in late September; meanwhile the Asian teams were at the end of long seasons, and some of their stars didn't show up. Canberra, meanwhile, had to put its participation in the Australian Baseball League on hold.
But for one week, these international leagues lined up and played a competitive, compelling international tournament.
You can watch the title game in its entirety below.