On the surface, Sri Lanka has had a disappointing result at the 2017 Asian Baseball Championship (ABC) in Taiwan, but it has been a tremendous year of growth for the Lions. On March 1, Sri Lanka finished off a three-game run through the West Asia Baseball Cup with a dramatic 4-2 victory over hosts Pakistan, qualifying for the ABC for the first time.
The Asian Championship started earlier this week and Sri Lanka was slotted into the very difficult Group A with hosts Taiwan, Korea, and the Philippines. As expected, Korea, the No. 3 team in the world, had no difficulty with the Lankans, disposing of the No. 52 team in the world 18-0.
Next up was the Philippines, a shadow of its former self at No. 47 in the world, 13 spots down from 2016 and 24 places lower than 2014, when it played well in World Baseball Classic qualification. Sri Lanka took a 3-0 lead in the second, giving up a three-spot one frame later, and found itself down 5-3 going into the eighth. However, unlike most inexperienced clubs, it battled back to tie the game at five, knocking out Juan Paulo Macasaet, who had been tremendous for the Pinoys. The Lions would go on to lose 8-5, but came close to a big upset.
“We have done well against the Philippines,” Rajith Ratnayake, the secretary for the Sri Lankan Baseball and Softball Association (SLABSA) told us. “We lost 8-5, [but] up to the third inning we lead 3-0. At the completion of the seventh inning, scores were 5-5, [but] they scored three runs in the eighth.”
The second loss put the Lankans bottom of the table and facing No. 4 Taiwan and no one with any knowledge of international baseball would have given Sri Lanka a chance. Enter Karunarathne Chirath, a 16-year old righthander who made his international debut against Korea and threw strikes in a final inning of shellacking.
Sri Lankan Head Coach Malindu Hewage was surely hoping for the best from Chirath, who did not appear in the West Asia Cup. What he received was truly astonishing given Chirath’s age and inexperience. After giving up a run in the first on two hits, the slender righthander kept Taiwan off-balance into the fourth and did not give up a run over 2 2/3 frames.
Amazingly, Taiwan even resorted to bunting in the 4th against Chirath after a leadoff walk. The plan worked as it split the defence, with the agile Chirath rushing to field the ball, which dribbled between the mound and third. Unfortunately, after a quick popup, the Sri Lankan defence imploded and seven runs came around to score.
Chirath hardly deserved his fate and continued a game-long trend of bouncing off the mound after every pitch, backing up the catcher and corner infielders on any batted ball, and showing positive energy and confidence until being pulled after roughly 80 pitches. The final line was impressive considering the opponent: 3 2/3 innings, six hits, two walks, a hit batter, and two earned runs. Chirath struck out only one, but until the series of miscues, the teen had only given up two line drives and Chirath had induced a variety of weak popups and groundballs.
Chirath throws a fastball in the high 70s and a slurvy breaking ball with a lot of movement, with his command in stretches ranging from above average to well below. The breaking ball ranged everywhere from the low-60s to the low-70s and could actually be a curve and a slider, but needs significant tuning. More promising was that Chirath maintained velocity throughout, even after throwing over 30 pitches in the fourth.
Considering the paltry number of coaches and few official games, Chirath has a lot of promise. With a pitching coach and proper conditioning, Chirath could add 20 miles an hour on the fastball and tighten the seams on his breaking pitches, while hopefully adding a changeup. Considering he is 16 and with better strength coaching, he could add a few inches to his 6′-0″ frame and probably 30-40 lbs/14-15 kgs of muscle.
“[He has] done well without international experience,” noted Ratnayake. “We knew that we have capable players but lack of funds [are] a problem to develop the game. But we have a dream which [has taken us] forward so far and it will [grow].”