Tigers cap great comeback
Power thrills, but speed kills.
The Beijing Tigers - especially Sun Lingfeng - hammered home the truth in that old sporting axiom by beating the Tianjin Lions 4-2 yesterday to cap an incredible comeback for the China Baseball League championship.
The defending champion Tigers went into the weekend trailing 0-2 in the best-of-five Finals, but after whipping the Lions 5-3 on Friday and 5-0 on Saturday, the stage was set for yesterday's showdown in the steady drizzle at Dodger Stadium in Tianjin.
Sun, the runaway winner of the series MVP award, picked up a pair of hits, scored twice and drove in two runs to finish with a .396 average, but once again it was the diminutive outfielder's blazing speed on the basepaths that contributed mightily to the Tigers' triumph.
As he had done through the first four games, Sun twice stretched routine singles into extra-base hits that turned into runs, and his fleet-footed fielding was directly responsible for killing Tianjin's only decent rally in the sixth when he ranged far to his right to make a circus catch at the wall.
The other key element in Beijing's improbable comeback was pitching.
Starter Zhao Jinjie gave up three hits and two runs through four innings for the Tigers before little-used Li Chenhao came on to provide five innings of no-hit relief.
Southpaw Zhang Wanjun started for Tianjin and went three innings before yielding to Bai Baoliang, who in turn was relieved by Puerto Rican import John Burges, who got roughed up in the eighth when the score was tied 2-2.
Burges beaned leadoff hitter Zhang Wei, then got Ma Ke on a sacrifice bunt before issuing an intentional walk to Sun Lingfeng. Pinch-hitter Li Chenhao then struck out, and with two strikes on Chen Ze, Beijing manager Li Bing called for a hit-and-run.
Chen drilled an inside fastball through the gap at second to score Sun for the winning run.
In the top of the ninth the Tigers pulled off a nearly identical hit-and-run to complete the scoring.
"I'm very proud of my players and very happy for our fans, but I also want to congratulate Tianjin for playing such a hard-fought series," said Beijing manager Li.
"Now is a time for celebration, but we still have many skills to improve upon. We were confident in our ability to win, but we got some good breaks as well. The Lions showed they are a great opponent and we can learn much from their strategy."
Tianjin manager Jiao Yi was understandably disappointed, but echoed his counterpart's sentiments about the competitiveness of the series.
"After we won the first two games in Beijing and people talked about a sweep, I thought it was ridiculous," said Jiao. "The Tigers are the defending champions, and we knew they would be much tougher in the last three games. They are a very strong and talented team and they played with great feeling. I salute them. My team did not play up to expectations and we now know what areas we must work to improve."
Tianjin scored 10 runs and pounded 17 hits in winning the first two games, but the five-day break before game three seemed to rob the Lions of their competitive fire.
En route to being swept at home, Tianjin committed seven errors - including three unforced miscues that cost them a total of five runs over the three games.
Sun Lingfeng's MVP honours capped a tremendous season for the Beijing outfielder who was featured in a New York Times story last month.
During the regular season Sun led the CBL in four offensive categories: hits (55); average (.382); runs scored (39); and stolen bases (31). His slugging percentage of .458 was second in the league.
"It's a very great feeling to win the China Baseball League championship; the team award is much more satisfying than individual honour," said Sun. "Our success was the result of good teamwork and strong coaching, but I must also say our opponents played very well and it took our best effort to defeat them."
Tom McCarthy, vice-chairman of the Professional Baseball Commission of the China Baseball Association, predicted the five-game thriller will be a boon for the game's development.
"Even in the rain, it was a great day for baseball in China and a fitting way to cap another very competitive season in the CBL," said McCarthy.
"The fans were ecstatic, and they really showed their appreciation to these guys for putting on such a great series. It's another step in the development of Chinese baseball."
The Lions and Tigers aren't quite done for the season.
Tianjin will host Team USA on Wednesday and Thursday night under the lights at Dodger Stadium, while the Tigers will square off against the American squad on Saturday and Sunday afternoon and next Monday morning at Fengtai Stadium.