Philippines Preparing for Baseball Renaissance

Sixth in a series of World Baseball Classic Previews

By Gabriel Fidler (@gabrielfidler)

Philippines Preparing for Baseball RenaissanceMARYVILLE, Tenn. – The Philippines has played baseball for more consecutive years than any country outside of North America, but has only just become a global threat in the last decade.  While their third-place finish in the fourth pool of the 2012 World Baseball Classic qualifying round was disappointing, they have a firm foundation and should continue to improve.

Baseball has a long history in the Philippines.  According to a 1916 letter to the New York Times, the game was introduced in 1898.  Two military regiments faced each other to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish, and a number of teams formed locally by the turn-of-the-century.

Arlie Pond was instrumental in growing the game in the following decade.  A former pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, he travelled around Europe with a group of baseball all-stars in 1896, thoroughly enjoying the experience.  He was appointed Assistant Surgeon General for the Spanish-American War and stationed in the Philippines in 1899.

This would prove providential for the islands as Pond managed a regimental team and taught the game to anyone who would listen.  After his military discharge in 1903, he remained, and relocated to Cebu in the south until his death in 1930.  The southern islands remain a baseball hotbed to this day.

In late 1934, a group of future MLB Hall-of-Famers toured Asia.  The group included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Earl Averill and John McGraw.  The all-stars travelled to the Philippines and played over the course of a week.  Unlike in Japan, where Ruth’s visit on the barnstorming tour was credited as the catalyst for baseball growth, the Filipinos knew the game well.

The golden age of Filipino baseball began in 1954, when the Philippines took home first place in the first Asian Baseball Championships.  During the 60s and 70s, baseball was the national pastime.  In an event dominated by Japan, Korea, and Chinese Taipei, the Philippines finished either third or fourth seven-of-eight times between 1955-1971, before lagging behind for an extended period.

The island nation did not play in another international competition after 1971 until 1994.  Many accounts from the older generation note the disappearing of parks in which to play baseball and the lack of television coverage for the sport.  These issues, along with financial factors, made dormant what was a promising start to the sport.  The first Pinoy in the major leagues was Bobby Balcena in 1956, but there were no others for another four decades.

Consider that in 2007, in speaking of the new domestic league, one baseball journalist bemoaned the coaches and facilities and described the local hitters as “still lack[ing] the proper mechanics to be able to drive the ball hard and consistently.”

Pitchers fared similarly poorly in his assessment. “Many hurlers though come in at the low to mid-70 mph range at this juncture.  Pitchers just do not have the arsenal of pitches nor the control that goes with each pitch. Neither is there a thorough understanding of the strike zone and how to pitch.

Since 2005, however, the team has been on the rise and has once more been finishing just behind the three Asian baseball powerhouses in tournaments.  Among other nations, the Philippines has become the team to beat, developing rivalries with Thailand and Indonesia in particular.  This has coincided with the establishment of a professional domestic league known as Baseball Philippines, which was founded in 2007.

The blue-and-red increased their participation in Asian baseball tournament in 2003, when they competed in the Asian Baseball Championships, the qualifier for the Olympics.  The Philippines failed to qualify, finishing fifth out of seventh teams.  Two years later, they achieved better results at the Southeast Asian Games (SEAG).

Rizal Memorial Sports Complex in Manila, the same stadium in which Ruth played, served as host for the tournament.  Competing against rivals Thailand and Indonesia, as well as Myanmar, the Philippines advanced to the title contest.  They jumped to an early lead against the Thai team and won 11-1 for the gold medal.

In November 2006, the Philippines competed in the Intercontinental Cup and the Asian Games.  In the Intercontinental Cup, a prelude to the Baseball World Cup, the Philippines finished 0-9 against a brutal slate.  Their best outing was in the seventh place game as they lost to South Korea 5-1.  More importantly, though, the selection to the Cup showed how much Filipino baseball had improved since the early 2000s.

The Pinoys did not fare much better at the Asian Games.  Facing the “Big Three” of Asian baseball, the Philippines finished last out of the six teams, but played the game much closer, scoring nine runs in five contests.

November and December of 2007 was a busy one for the Philippines.  In late November, the team travelled to Chinese Taipei for the preliminary round of the Asian Baseball Championships, where they were undefeated.  Facing a tough schedule, they defeated Pakistan 2-0 and Hong Kong 4-1 before taking on Thailand in the final contest.  The two teams battled out a scoreless draw through 12 innings before the game was called.

From there, the Pinoys travelled to Thailand in the first week of December to defend their title at the Southeast Asian Games.  They opened with a 31-0 drubbing of Malaysia and 14-0 silencing of Cambodia.  They then defeated Myanmar 6-1 and allowed only four hits in 1 -0 shutout over Indonesia.  In the final contest against the hosts, who were also unbeaten, Thailand took an early 4-0 lead, and a rally by the Philippines came up short in a 5-4 loss.

The Philippines returned to Taiwan for the “A Level” of the Asian Baseball Championships (ABC), but did not find victory against the Big Three.  Still, the margin of defeat in those contests went from five-inning mercy rule shutouts to competitive seven and nine inning games.

By virtue of their placement in 2007, the blue-and-red qualified for the A Level round at the 2009 ABCs.  The Philippines’ first contest was a 12-0 thrashing by Japan, but they regrouped for a 6-1 win over Indonesia and an 8-0 shutout of Thailand.

The Philippines took a respite from international play in 2010, but contested the Southeast Games once more in 2011.  The squad travelled to Indonesia, and despite being the visitors against a strong host team, once more claimed the gold.

Along the way, they defeated Thailand 9-2, one-hit Vietnam in a 10-0 shutout, blasted Malaysia by the same score, and tossed a two-hit blanking of Indonesia in a 4-0 win.  Their performance sent them to the title match, where they dispatched the hosts, 2-0.

Riding a wave of momentum over the previous three years, the Philippines tuned up for the World Baseball Classic against rivals Thailand in the East Asia Cup Baseball tourney.  The blue-and-red swept through the four-game tournament by a 34-2 aggregate, including a 3-1 victory over the hosts in the final game.

“Our athletes have endured serious training in the past months. They have worked so hard to get into tip-top shape and all those sacrifices paid off,” head coach Wilfredo Hidalgo told  the Manila Times.

Many of the players on the Philippines’ World Baseball Classic side have competed in the tournaments over the past three years.  Two of their top pitchers have been key national team members since the 2006 Asian Games.  That experience will be vital if the Philippines is ever to take down the Big Three at an international tournament.

The Philippines boasts a fairly deep pitching staff compared to many of the countries in the WBC qualifying rounds.  Charlie Labrador and Darwin de la Calzada have been pitching for the national team for six years, and are joined by Jon Jon Robles, Vladimir Eguia, Romeo Jasmin, Joseph Orillana, and Ernesto Binarao.

Labrador was one of the top hurlers in the Philippines for eight years, going 24-13 with a 2.87 ERA and a 3.96 strikeout-to-walk ratio (k/bb), all for the Manila Sharks.  Labrador did have one notable start in the 2007 ABCs, as he allowed only one run in four innings against Chinese Taipei, though the blue-and-red would not gain the victory.

De la Calzada also brings vast international experience, and while his ERA is not impressive, he has also started against the top nations in the world.  Domestically for the Forward Taguig Patriots, the southpaw had a career mark of 18-15, 3.19 over eight seasons.

Robles gives the team a European connection.  He joined Philippines National Team manager Edgar de los Reyes on the Arrows Ostrava of the Czech Extra League in 2008 after pitching in the Baseball Philippines circuit in 2007.  Robles was dominant in both campaigns, going 11-2 with a 1.20 ERA and striking out 11.1 per nine innings.  He led the league in innings (120 1/3) and strikeouts (149) and was third in ERA.

The southpaw followed that year with an 8-9, 1.77 season in 2009.  He was second in ERA, innings, strikeouts, and opponents’ average (.193).  Robles also has some talent with the bat, and was named Best Batter and MVP in the 2009 European Cup Qualifier at Ostrava.  He hit .257/.339/.318 during the regular season.

201o found him back in the Philippines with the Sharks, teaming with Labrador to lead them to two straight championships.  Between 2010 and 2011, he was 3-1 with a 1.47 ERA and 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings (k/9) and an 8.2 k/bb.

Eguia is a nine-year veteran of Baseball Philippines and is the career leader in ERA (2.76) innings (346) and strikeouts (287).  He has a career record of 25-12 and a 7.5 k/9.  Jasmin joined Eguia on the Batangas Bulls, and as the number two starter, accumulated a 16-10 record with a 3.40 ERA and a 3.83 k/bb.

Orillana plays for the Cebu Dolphins and was 4-0 with a 3.62 ERA with a 4.50 strikeout –to-walk ratio in 2012.  In his nine-year career, he is 27-12 with a 2.81 ERA and 3.67 k/bb mark.

Binarao, who toils for the Dumaguete Uni Bikers, was a hard luck starter for eight year, going 10-14 despite a 3.30 ERA and a whopping 4.55 k/bb mark.  He has been a member of the national team since 2001.

The most noteworthy Philippines-trained batter is Jonash Ponce.  The center fielder was named to the All-Star team in the 2009 ABCs and has six years of international experience.  Ponce also flashed his five-tool skills for Cebu between 2004-2011, during which he hit .297 and slugged .565, stealing 35 bases.  He was 0-for-4 in the qualifier.

Reinforcing the domestically trained players are several imports with professional or top-level experience.  The first four batters in the starting lineup for the World Baseball Classic are all Filipino-Americans, or Fil-Ams, as they are affectionately known.

The leadoff hitter for the WBC was Devon Bryce Ramírez. Ramírez is a two-way player who finished up his collegiate career at California State University-Dominguez Hills.  In five total university seasons, he hit .328 with good plate discipline and a little pop.

The 2012 campaign was his best, as he hit .337 and slugged .416, while totalling seven sacrifice hits and four stolen bases.  He finished the year on a .455 tear in his last eight games and carried the strong performance into the Classic, where he hit .273 with a .429 OBP.  Ramírez also appeared on the mound in five seasons, tossing 69 1/3 innnings.  He had 64 strikeouts in that time, but walked 66.  He tossed 1 2/3 in the Philippines final contest.

Chad Nacapoy was the starting catcher for the blue-and-red.  He was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays out California State University-Los Angeles, where he was formed a battery with Brazil’s Gabriel Asakura.  In 2012, he hit .361/.409/.525 and was perfect in the field, throwing out 38 per cent of runners.  He appeared in 22 games for Princeton, accumulating a .244/.375/.267 line.  Nacapoy was 3-for-12 in the WBC.

Ryan Pineda joined the squad from the Oakland Athletics’ farm system.  He was drafted out of California State University-Northridge in 2010.  Pineda’s career minor league line is .241/.330/.358 and he plays mostly third base, although he manned shortstop for the Philippines.  He was also the team’s top hitter, going 6-for-12 and slugging .750.

The final Fil-Am was Leighton Pangilinan, who struggled mightily in the tournament.  The burly first baseman from California has a minor league line of .252/.305/.377, but was 1-for-13 with four strikeouts, committing three errors.

On the pitching side, the most notable addition is former San Francisco Giant Gino Espineli, who tossed two hitless frames without allowing a run for the Philippines.  The 6-4 left-hander pitched 16 innings in 2008, finishing 2-0 with a 5.06 ERA.  He did not pitch in the minors in 2012, but has a 3.89 ERA in almost 600 innings over eight seasons.

Espineli noted the continued lack of facilities. “I see great opportunity to build and expand the sport from the ground up. The foundation exists to help grow the sport. It starts with more fields with adequate lighting.  We need to find athletes that have the determination and ability to succeed in baseball, and we need to put our support behind them.”

Ryuya Ogawa is the other key import.  Ogawa was taken in second round of the 2009 draft out of high school in Japan by the Chunichi Dragons.  He has spent most of his career in the Industrial Leagues, but has thrown five innings in the Nippon Professional Baseball League, allowing two runs.  Ogawa had an uneven start against Taiwan in the WBC, striking out five in four frames, but giving up three runs on five hits and four walks.

Labrador saw the most action on the hill for the Philippines in the Classic, allowing three earned runs on nine hits and two walks in six innings, taking the loss against New Zealand.  All of Baseball Philippines’ top starters saw at least some action, with Eguia and Robles the most impressive.

Eguia hurled two hitless innings over two games, allowing no runs.  He struck out one.  Robles earned the start against Thailand, and had a strong start.  The lefty did not give up an earned run over 4 1/3 frames, scattering five hits and a walk while sending one down on strikes.

While the Filipino staff finished with an ERA of 7.20, the experience that the team has is substantial for a team ranked only 34th in the world.  That rating would certainly increase if Espineli could convince Clay Rapada of the New York Yankees and a pair of San Francisco Giants in Tim Lincecum and minor league first baseman Ricky Oropesa to also don the blue-and-red.  If the Fil-Am hitters can return for future international tournaments, the Philippines should be a team to watch.

Espineli has exactly that in mind.  “I hope to return to the Philippines in the future with other [Filipino-American] players in tow.  I left the Philippines vowing to continue to help spread baseball’s popularity,” declared Espineli. “I also said I hoped to one day play on a Philippine baseball team on a global stage to show that we can compete with any country. That day has come.”

Most of the team will return to Taiwan in about 10 days for the Asian Baseball Championships.  After finished 1-2 and remaining competitive throughout the World Baseball Classic, the Philippines will almost assuredly be invited to compete in a qualifying pool in 2016.

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About Gabriel Fidler

Card Sharp is devoted to my chief indoor hobby-baseball (and occasionally football [that's soccer to you Americans], hockey, American football, and basketball) card collecting.
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