Sunday, October 25, 2015

CPBL: A Historic Game 7 for the Ages

When thinking of Asian import players during the offseason, most tend to search the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) of Japan or the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), and for good reasons too. The NPB has produced talents such as Ichiro and Masahiro Tanaka, with many fans in the States with their eyes on current Japanese aces Kenta Maeda and Shohei Otani. The KBO has made waves this year, with Jung-ho Kang making a successful transition and the possible posting of slugging third baseman Jae-gyun Hwang this winter. However, one major Asian league on par with the two other leagues and not nearly as well scouted is the CPBL in Taiwan. The acronym stands for the Chinese Professional Baseball League, which is kind of misleading since it is the baseball league in Taiwan with no ties to mainland China. But this blog is about baseball, and not politics, so let's carry on. While Taiwan has produced multiple successful major leaguers such as lefty Wei-Yin Chen, the CPBL has produced just one player in the MLB, former left handed reliever Fu-Te Ni, who had one solid season before his elbow gave out and required Tommy John. The Taiwan Series, or the CPBL equivalent of the World Series, however, holds some of the top CPBL talent who could make the transition to the MLB soon.

The high-offense Lamigo Monkeys (think the Blue Jays) had a lineup loaded with power up and down. They boasted the CPBL's first 30-30 player this season, infielder Chih-Sheng Lin, a soon-to-be free agent due for a big payday who also won the Home Run Derby this year at the age of 33. He slashed a ridiculous .380/.469/.689 with 30 stolen bases, blowing away his career highs and tying a career high 31 home runs. He was protected by Hong-Yu Lin, a catcher/DH who also set career highs with a .353/.443/.581 with 24 home runs and rookie sensation Po-Jung Wang, who hit .324/.377/.640 and 9 home runs in just 111 at bats, including this one (skip to 1:00) where he went opposite field 12 rows up the stands. The Monkeys also had Yen-Wen Kuo, a former Reds prospect, who despite an unorthodox swing has great bat to ball skills, slashing .297/.349/.418 including a league record 34 game hit streak, and Chun-Hsiu Chen, a big Indians prospect a few years back who swatted 25 long balls this year. The pitching was led by Pat Misch and Jared Lansford, who had a 2.96 and 4.15 ERA, respectively. One of the better native pitchers on the island, lefty Yi-Cheng Wang, struggled for the first time in his young career, with a 6.13 ERA, but he would later come up huge in this series.

The Lamigo Monkeys hype video:

The Chinatrust Brothers are a storied franchise, one of the original teams in the CPBL known as the Brother Elephants before Chinatrust bought the team this past offseason. The pitching was lead by former Brewer Mike McClendon and Victor Garate, as well as a lock-down bullpen with top set-up man Ta-Yuan Kuan and former Cubs prospect and current closer Hung-Wen Chen. The heart of the lineup had former superstar Cheng-min Peng, a 15-year veteran who, despite the drop-off in power production still managed to maintain his contact skills and excellent plate discipline. It also included veteran outfielder Szu-Chi Chou, who hit .349 with 15 home runs, bouncing back from a bad 2014 where he OPS'd just .686. The big threat in the lineup though, was second-year corner infielder Chi-Hong Hsu. With his solid arm, plate discipline, plus raw power and bit of swagger, he hit .319/.432/.535 with 13 home runs, earning the nickname "Taiwanese Manny Machado."

Chi-Hong Hsu going opposite field:

The Taiwan Series began with the Monkeys rallying behind former Giant and Met Pat Misch, who scattered eight hits and three runs over seven solid frames. Rookie of the Year candidate Po-Jung Wang (more on him in a later post) and Hung-Yu Lin both homered off Brothers' Victor Garate, beating them 8-6. But the Chinatrust Brothers came back, winning Game 2 behind a late rally, Game 3 with an 11 inning walk-off by shortstop Sheng-wei Wang, and a Game 4 12-7 slugfest. Yet the Monkeys then came back with a complete game by Yi-Cheng Wang in Game 5 to send the series back to Taoyuan, the home of the Monkeys. Game 6 was a thriller, with the Monkeys starting Cesar Valdez, who lost game 2, and the Brothers countering with Bryan Woodall. The Brothers led 3-2 in the top of the third and two outs when Lamigo manager Yi-Chong Hong made a pivotal decision. He brought in Game 3 starter Jared Lansford on just three days rest, and he pitched 5 gutsy innings while Lamigo rallied back, taking a 5-3 lead in the eighth when Lansford loaded the bases. Manager Hong then made one more big decision. He brought in Pat Misch, who started Games 1 and 4, in on two days rest to face the lefties. He walked in a run, but then struck out Chi-Hong Hsu to end the threat and keep the lead at 5-4, which is how the game ended.

This set up an epic Game 7, one that will be remembered in CPBL history for years to come. Having used Valdez and Lansford the night before and Wang two games ago, the Monkeys brought back Pat Misch to start the championship game after starting Games 1, 4, and relieving in Game 6. The tall lefty sat at 86-88 mph with a changeup at 82-83 and a 77 mph slider. He pounded the zone all night long, striking out the side in the second, mixing fastballs and changeups down and away against lefties, a sequence that worked for him the whole game. He retired the first 12 batters he faced before he walked Cheng-min Peng, but quickly erased him with a double play ball. The Monkeys were on offensively all game long. A first inning opposite field home run from MVP candidate Chih-Sheng Lin started the offense, and they exploded for 5 runs in the bottom of the third for a 7-0 lead. Lin started the rally again as the Brothers pitched around him, walking him with 2 outs in the third. This proved costly when Hong-Yu Lin followed up with a rocket line drive to right to put runners on first and second. Yen-Wen Kuo then doubled them both home with a gapper to left center, which chased Brothers starter Ping-Rei Chiu. The Brothers made the interesting decision to pitch spot starter Chiu in this big game 7 over scheduled starter Victor Garate, who was hit hard over two starts in the Series but solid overall. A reliever came in but the Monkeys were not done. Po-Jung Wang then lined an RBI single to right, setting a single-series record 14 hits. After yet another single by Chun-Hsiu Chen, the Monkeys scored 2 more when De-Long Yu, a fan-favorite village kid known for his speed and defense, hit an RBI double over the left fielder's head, making the score 7-0.

The Chinatrust Brothers, down 7-0 and still without a hit, tried to get something started off Misch with a bunt attempt to start off the 6th, but it went foul. Misch continued to stay in control with his fastball and changeup and mixing in his slider, getting ground balls and strikeouts as he threw another 1-2-3 inning. The Monkeys, in the bottom of the eighth, leading 9-0, decided to pinch hit Chin-Feng Chen, a CPBL legend who will likely retire at the end of the season. Back in 2000, Chen was the top prospect in the Dodgers farm system, rated  the #17 overall prospect in the MLB. After several excellent campaigns in AAA from 2002-2004, the Dodgers never gave him a shot, and he returned to Taiwan to play in the CPBL and be closer to family. He is arguably the best Taiwanese hitter of all-time, but injuries and age have slowed him down. He received just 52 plate appearances all year, but he made the most out of his possible final stand. He ripped a line drive single to right center, and later scored on a sac fly. Meanwhile, on the defensive side, Misch was still dealing. Having faced the minimum through eight with just a walk to blemish his record, he faced the 7-8-9 part of the Brothers lineup. After retiring the first hitter on a groundout, Sheng-wei Wang gave him his first real scare on the night. He drove the ball to deep right, but Po-Jung Wang raced back easily and made the catch. On his 99th pitch off the night, pinch hitter Jian-Yu Kuo hit into a 6-3 groundout, giving Pat Misch the first postseason NO-HITTER in CPBL history. He was in control all night long, retiring the minimum 27 batters with 7 strikeouts. This series was truly the epitome of baseball: anything can happen to any team, anywhere, at any time. The Game 7 performance by Pat Misch and the collective effort of the Lamigo Monkeys to come back in this series will forever be etched in CPBL history books.

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