China Seeking Nation’s Biggest Baseball Upset

By Gabriel Fidler (@gabrielfidler)
Third in a series of 2013 World Baseball Classic previews

China will look to capitalise on a surprise performance in the 2009 World Baseball Classic (WBC) and pull another upset in this year’s edition of the quadrennial tournament. The red-and-yellow will face No. 1-ranked Cuba, No. 3 Japan, and No. 20 Brazil in their bid for the world title.

Baseball History in China
While Japan is best known among Asian nations for its baseball prowess, China has the longest history of the sport on the continent. The first club was formed in 1863 in Shanghai by an American medical missionary. By 1895, three universities fielded baseball teams, though it was not for another decade that organised baseball was played.

The first international competition in which China competed was the Far East Games in 1913, finishing in third. Interest in baseball grew around in the country in the proceeding decades, even attracting a MLB All-Star Team with Babe Ruth in 1934. During the Chinese Civil War that lasted throughout the 30s and 40s, baseball was using in military training.

“It made better soldiers, and our pitchers could toss a grenade faster and farther than anyone else… and with a curve on it,” remarked Du Kehe, a sergeant in the People’s Liberation Army and star of the Fighting Sports Brigade, a military club during the war.

The sport became quite popular after the proclamation of the Republic of China in 1949, but the game’s development was halted in the early 1960s as Mao Zedong prepared for what would become the Cultural Revolution. Baseball was forbidden along with other Western practices, and the ban was not lifted until 1976 at Mao’s death.

“We lost a generation of baseball players,” Leon Xie, MLB managing director in China, explained to the Asia Times. “It will take at least one generation to recover.”

Despite a policy of “friendship first, competition second” as applied to most Western sports, baseball struggled to regain a foothold against tennis, table tennis, badminton, and basketball. The nation did not join the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) until 1981.

In 1986, Peter O’Malley, then owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, travelled to China to investigate baseball’s future in the country. The enthusiasm he saw caused him to build a baseball field in Tianjin after a trip to China, but it has since fallen into disrepair. Even the field built for the 2008 Olympics has been demolished and replaced with a shopping mall.

In 2002, the China Baseball League (CBL) was founded with four teams in major cities on China’s East Coast. Two more teams were added in 2005, and the league has established ties with Japan to aid development.

MLB also sponsors the CBL, and began the “Play Ball” programme in 2007, aimed at training coaches and giving Chinese children basic instruction in schools. A year later, the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres played a pair of spring training games in the Olympic stadium. In 2009, the MLB Baseball Development Centre was established in Wuxi to attract the nation’s top talent and offer training. Similar projects exist in Australia, South Africa, and Italy.

“The government is very protective of the schools to keep out any kind of commercialism,” noted Xie. “Having Play Ball in the schools shows the strength of our relationship with the government.”

“It’s a little early to be asking for a Yao [Ming, a former NBA superstar] of baseball, but programs like Play Ball are pushing China in the right direction to cultivate new baseball stars. These kids are growing up as the first generation to play this game, but it has to start with the youth,” observed Jeff Brueggemann, a member of MLB’s envoy to China. “I played baseball with my brother and dad growing up. Most Chinese kids don’t even have siblings.”

According to baseball’s governing body in China, the Chinese Baseball Association, there are four million people that play the sport in China. Many of those do so at one of the approximately 60 universities and 1,000 schools that offer teams. While these numbers may be somewhat inaccurate, they have no doubt risen since the Chicago Tribune reported that there were only around 30,000 players in 1991. Still, the figure is miniscule compared to the population of around 1.3 billion and a booming economy.

“It’s a long haul, a long process,” confessed Jim Small, Vice President of MLB Asia. “We’re taking a sport that’s been gone for a long time, and bringing it back.”

“There is no reason to doubt that in the near future some of the world’s best baseball players will be Chinese,” Jim Small, Vice President of MLB Asia, told the China Daily. “It will take some time but it’s definitely going to happen.”

China’s International Play
China has had very little international success in its baseball history. Their best-ever finish in the WBC is 11th, 10th at the Baseball World Cup, 11th at the Intercontinental Cup, and a single third-place finish in 2005 at the Asian Baseball Championship (ABC) in Japan. They are 39-96 in international tournaments since joining IBAF, including a 14-41 mark in events not limited to Asian countries.

The nation has shown improvement in recent years, defeating Korea to win the bronze at the 2005 ABC. In the 2008 Olympics, the hosts lost to Korea in 11 innings and defeated Chinese Taipei, repeating the feat in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. The latter victory is its only one in six games at the WBC.

In the 2006 Classic, China was shelled in three straight games in the Tokyo Dome. In an opening pool that was essentially a replay of the 2005 ABC, Japan beat the red-and-yellow 18-2, Korea avenged itself with a 10-1 drubbing, and Taiwan earned a 12-3 victory. China hit only .185/.286/.293 in the tourney with a 9.72 ERA.

The 2009 WBC revealed a Chinese side that had made some progress, losing 4-0 to Japan before shocking Taiwan, 4-1. They were eliminated with a 14-0 loss to Korea, but finished ahead of an embarrassed Chinese Taipei squad. Chinese batters managed only a .190/.207/.250 line, with the pitching staff recording a 6.65 ERA.

China had very mixed results in their most recent tournament in December at the ABC. They finished 2-3, with their wins coming over an underperforming Philippines and a woeful Pakistan side. Though it lost a close game to hosts Chinese Taipei, 3-1, a subpar Korean side upended China 4-0 and an amateur Japanese team blasted the team 10-1.

With the exception of the drubbing by Japan, the pitching staff performed well at the Championship, notching a 3.08 ERA and 1.21 WHIP and striking out 33 in the 38 innings. The lineup, as it has in other competitions, failed to produce. China scored 25 runs in the five contests, but hit .228, reaching base only 28 per cent of the time and slugging .291. They did steal 11 bases, a feat which they may need to replicate for WBC success.

China’s Coaching Staff and Preparations
Unlike most WBC teams, manager John McLaren and his staff bring more star power to the team than do any of the players. McLaren was manager of the Seattle Mariners during 2007 and 2008, and has a 70-89 record in parts of three campaigns.

McLaren will be assisted by Art Howe, who captained three major league clubs to a 1129-1137 record over 14 years, but will serving as hitting coach. Bruce Hurst, who accrued a 145-113 record and 3.92 ERA in 15 MLB seasons, returns as pitching coach, a role he held in 2006. Yufeng Zhang, manager of the Shanghai Golden Eagles in the CBL and national team veteran, will serve as a coach and backup infielder.

“I really found my niche,” Hurst remarked, speaking about his time with Team China. “I really like this. I like the people from Major League Baseball International I work with. They are great guys. This is where I found my passion.”

Unfortunately, China will have to do without Kansas City Royals’ starter Bruce Chen. Chen pitched for Panamá in the first two Classics, but has Chinese grandparents. The journeyman hurler has a 71-72 record and a 4.60 ERA in parts of 14 major league seasons.

Chen submitted documentation to play for China, but approval was slow, and the left-hander pulled out of consideration in mid-February, dealing a significant blow to a Chinese side that does not have a player with MLB experience.

The team warmed up for the Classic with a fortnight of MLB-funded training at the Seattle Mariners’ spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz. before the big league club arrived. China conducted a series of exhibition games that have failed to produce much confidence in its chances of avoiding relegation to the qualifying rounds.

The red-and-yellow started by losing two-of-three against clubs from the Korean Baseball Organisation. China then faced the Netherlands three times between Feb. 14-20, losing every game. The team was outscored 32-5 by the No. 7-ranked nation.

The squad returned home on Feb. 21 and flew to Osaka yesterday. China will play two more exhibition games before beginning World Baseball Classic play. It will have a tall task against two of the top three baseball-playing nations in the world.

China has tested Japan 26 times since joining IBAF in 1985, losing every game by an average score of 11-1. The results have been similar against Cuba, as they are 0-7 since first meeting in 1998, averaging an 11-2 defeat. China has split its two contests versus Brazil, defeating them 2-1 in the 2005 World Cup and losing 4-0 in the 2003 rendition.

China’s Starting Nine

China’s roster is almost unchanged from the ABC in December. Though the team’s performance was unimpressive, they do hold an advantage in that the team has been playing together for several months and has experience against several top level countries. Manager McLaren has added three pitchers and several hitters, including the nation’s top talent in Ray Chang.

The team’s leading hitters are Chang, Wei Wang, and Weiqiang Meng. Chang and Wang are two of only several veterans on a club with an average age of 25. Only 6 players are older than 27, and there are three teenagers on the team.

Chang sat out the Asian Championships, but was a national hero in the last WBC and has a solid career minor league batting line. The journeyman infielder is coming off a .241 season, but has a career .272/.346/.379 line in eight seasons.

Chang was 5-for-11 with two extra base hits in the 2009 WBC. He singlehandedly led China over Chinese Taipei with a 3-for-4 effort that included a home run. Chang was born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants.

Wang is arguably the country’s greatest homegrown talent. The catcher was signed by the Mariners, though he returned to play in China’s domestic circuit without appearing in a game.

The backstop joined the national team in 1999, appearing in more than a dozen events since then. In the 2006 WBC, Wang was 2-for-9, but had a double and the Classic’s first-ever home run (off Koji Uehara), knocking in four of China’s five runs in the event. He was 5-for-15 at the ABC, though he did not walk or hit for extra bases.

Meng led the team in RBIs (6) in Taiwan, stroking a .294/.368/.412 line and swiping a bag. He showed off a clutch hitting approach, rapping four of his five hits with runners in scoring position. Meng, only 23, is the heir apparent to the 34-year old Wang behind the plate, but plays third on days he does not catch to keep his bat in the lineup.

The rest of the infield will consist of Fujia Chu at first base, Lei Li at second, and Xu An at shortstop, with Chang capable of playing well around the infield. Chang will likely serve as the designated hitter on days that Meng is at third.

Li is one of eight players on the roster who have previously played in a classic and has a reputation as a strong fielder. In 2006, he had a double in two at bats, scoring once. He hit .238 at the most recent ABC, stroking two doubles and stealing a base, leading the team in runs (5). He was named Rookie of the Year in the CBL in 2003, and led the circuit in home runs, stolen bases, and RBI in 2011.

Chu mustered only a .118 average in December, and performed similarly in the 2009 Classic, when he hit .111. His only hit was against Taiwan and, after stealing second, scored a crucial run in the win. An was 3-for-20 with a stolen base at the Asian Championships.

Yubing Jia may see time at first base and designated hitter as well. Jia is one of four Chinese players to sign with a major league club, also inking a contract with the Mariners. After a 2007 CBL season in which he led the league in homers, he hit .200 for the M’s in the Arizona Fall League, the top developmental league in the US. He was later released before playing in a regular season game.

Jia has been extremely streaky in international play. In 2007, he ripped two home runs in a five-game pre-Olympic tournament, but then went 1-for-24 with 12 strikeouts in the Olympiad.

Zhenhong Lu, the team’s leading hitter at the ABC, will be joined in the outfield by Xiao Cui and Jingfeng Lai. Lu ripped a .375 average in December, stealing two bases and hitting a pair of doubles in 16 at bats. The 21-year old has not appeared in either of the previous Classics.

Cui flashed impressive skills in Taiwan, walking six times in five games, scoring three runs, and stealing four bases, which led the tourney. He hit .200 with a .429 on-base percentage. He played one year in Japan’s minor leagues in 2006, before returning to the CBL.

Despite his struggles in December, Lai will likely remain a starter as China is carrying only three outfielders. Lai hit .063 at the Championships.

The batting lineup should remain almost identical to the Asian Championships, with Chang added to the middle of the order.

Xiao Cui – CF
Xu An – SS
Lei Li – 2B
Ray Chang – DH
Wei Wang – C
Fujia Chu – 1B
Weiqiang Meng – 3B/C
Zhenhong Lu – LF
Jingfeng Lai – RF

China’s Pitching Staff
The red-and-yellow had a string of good pitching performances in Taiwan. Tao Bu picked up one of the nation’s victories over Pakistan, while Quingyuan Meng earned the win against the Philippines. Yu Liu had a gutsy outing against Korea and Jiangang Lu was strong in relief.

Bu, China’s top pitcher, allowed only one run in 10 frames, striking out 12 and walking two. He pitched a shutout versus Pakistan, striking out nine in five innings of the mercy rule game. Bu also turned in a strong showing against Chinese Taipei, allowing just five baserunners and one run in five innings, whiffing three in the no decision.

Bu may be in line for a start, though he has served as a reliever in the first two Classics. The left-hander has a 9.64 ERA and 2.57 WHIP in four games.

Meng hurled six innings in his start at the ABC, walking one batter and giving up a single hit and no runs. He struck out three. Liu battled through 5 1/3 frames in Taiwan, working around six hits and four walks to surrender two earned runs.

Lu was impressive, surrendering a single hit and no walks to the nine batters he faced in relief, striking out three in 2 2/3. He may return to the rotation for the Classic, as he toed the rubber in China’s win over Chinese Taipei in 2009. Lu gave up five baserunners and one run in 5 1/3 innings, striking out a pair.

The right-hander also recorded a win over China’s archrivals in the 2008 Olympics and the 2006 Haarlem Baseball Week. Lu is the only Chinese player with a victory in either tournament and is the only Chinese hurler ever to defeat Taiwan.

Lu is a multiple winner of the Best Pitcher award in the CBL and was the first Chinese player to play in Japan in 1999, a year after joining the national team. He pitched in the minor leagues for Japan’s Chunichi Dragons, notching a 3.83 ERA over three seasons.

The bullpen will likely be anchored by Kun Chen, Shuai Li, and Dawei Zhu. Chen and Li each appeared in three games, as it took a team effort to finish the games versus the ABC’s top three teams.

Chen pitched 3 2/3 innings at the ABC, allowing batters to hit only .133 as he accumulated a 0.82 WHIP. He has a 7.71 ERA and 2.14 WHIP in two Classics, though he got the last five outs and the save in China’s 2009 victory over Taiwan. Chen has played for Team China since 1999.

Li gave up a run in 2 2/3 frames in December, despite a 0.38 WHIP and .111 batting average against. He also appeared in the 2006 Classic.

Zhu was born in Shanghai but grew up in Japan. He was drafted by the Seibu Lions, and played for five seasons in Japan, going 4-11 with a 6.65 ERA in 180 innings. The right-hander allowed a run in one inning in the 2009 Classic.

One final name to watch is Haifan Yang. A right-hander pitcher, Yang turned 18 on October 23, making him the youngest player on the roster. Yang pitched for his CBL team, the Beijing Tigers, in the 2011 World Baseball Challenge, recording a 6.96 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 10 1/3 innings against national teams.

China’s WBC Schedule
China will begin pool play on Mar. 3 in the 38,561-seat Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome against Japan. Game time is 11 a.m. GMT. A day later, they will contest Cuba at 7:30 a.m. GMT. The red-and-yellow will likely enter game three needing a win to avoid relegation, and will face upstarts Brazil, who shocked the baseball world in November with a dramatic sweep through the Panamá City qualifier. The final pool matchup will commence on Mar. 5 at 8 a.m. GMT.

Stay tuned for more news, previews, and recaps of the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

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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.
This entry was posted in Asia, China, Previews, Tournaments, World Baseball Classic and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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