The La New Bears played seven innings of near-flawless ball against Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) champs the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on Friday night in first round action of this year's Konami Cup Asia Series.
The four-nation series features the championship teams from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and the Chinese all-star team.
But when it counted the most, the newly crowned Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) champs came up a bit short as they faltered in the final two innings to lose by a heartbreaking score of 2-1 at the Tokyo Dome.
On the strength of a solo homer by outfielder Tseng Hao-jui off Fighters starter Takeda Masaru in the bottom of the fifth and seven brilliant innings of two-hit ball by American starter Kenny Rayborn, the Bears took a 1-0 shutout into the eighth in a game that many had thought would be an easy Fighters victory.
But failure to keep the Fighters off the bases by ace closer Ramon Morel of the Dominican Republic in the eighth led to a pair of runs that ultimately cost the Bears the game and a chance to make baseball history by being the first Taiwanese professional team to beat a professional team from Japan.
After allowing the leadoff man to reach on a broken-bat infield single, a successful Fighters sacrifice bunt on the ensuing play put a runner on second for the first time in the game in the top of the eighth. Rayborn was then replaced by Morel in hopes of shutting down the Fighters' batting attack.
Instead, the usually dependable righty -- who had blown only one save in 20 opportunities during the regular season -- not only failed to put a stop to the Fighters' rally but added fuel to fire by walking the next two batters to load the bases.
Even though he was able to induce a groundball out by Tanaka Kensuke on the next play for a potential force-out at home, the throw to home by first baseman Pan Chung-wei didn't arrive in time as the Fighters scored the tying run on the play.
With the bases remain loaded with one out, Ogasawara Michihiro hit a game-winning sacrifice fly to left.
Fighters closer Nakamura Michael allowed the Bears' Lin Chih-sheng to reach first on a hit batsman to represent the tying run for La New, but quickly recorded two outs before throwing a wild pitch that sent Lin all the way to third to make things interesting in the bottom of the ninth.
But that as close as the Bears got as Nakamura settled in and recorded the final out of the game to preserve the victory for Takeda.
Taking the loss for the Bears was Morel, whose return to Japan after a short stint with the Hanshin Tigers (of the NPB) in 2004 was not particularly pleasant. The two walks he issued proved to be the difference in the game, even though he did not give up a single hit in the fatal eighth.
"We played a heck of a game tonight regardless of what others might say, and I am very proud of what our players did," Bears manager Hung Yi-chung, who was selected Manager of the Year in the CPBL, said after the game.
Nippon Fighters 6, China Stars 1
In another game on Friday, Shinji Takahashi drove in three runs yesterday as the Nippon Ham Fighters defeated the China Stars 6-1 in the Asia Series in Tokyo.
Takahashi hit a two-run homer in the third inning at the Tokyo Dome to give Trey Hillman's team a 5-0 lead and Nippon Ham starter Satoru Kanemura struck out seven over five scoreless innings for the win.
The Fighters were scheduled to face the winner of yesterday's late game in which South Korea's Samsung Lions faced off with the Bears.
The four teams faced each other once in the preliminary round and the top two teams will meet again in today's final.
The China Stars, managed by American Jim Lefebvre, got their only run of the game on a home run by Li Lei in the top of the ninth inning.
Bobby Valentine's Chiba Lotte Marines won the inaugural Asia Series last year.
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