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A blast off the past / Sluggish Dragons finally get to former teammate, batter China

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A blast off the past / Sluggish Dragons finally get to former teammate, batter China

by Jim Allen, Daily Yomiuri Sportswriter (Nov 11, 2007)

The Chunichi Dragons overcame a good effort by a former teammate on Saturday to book their spot in the Konami Cup final.

Lu Jiangang, who became China's first pro baseball player when he signed with Chunichi in 1999, pitched like an old pro but could not prevent his old team from steamrolling his China Stars 9-1 at Tokyo Dome.

The Dragons will take on the unbeaten South Korea champion SK Wyverns in today's final. The Wyverns beat up Taiwan's Uni-President Lions 13-1 in the late game.

In the afternoon, Lu retired the first 14 Dragons hitters he faced and didn't allow a hit until Kazuki Inoue homered to tie it in the fifth inning.

"We didn't even have a walk until the fourth inning," Inoue said. "Honestly speaking, we were a little bit nervous. It's not like we were panicking or anyone was saying, 'We don't have a hit,' but I went up there to tie it.

"With one out and none on, I decided that if he threw me a fat pitch I would try and drive it."

Inoue got a fastball up and in and smoked it. The ball cleared the right-field fence for his second homer of the Asia Series. Masahiro Araki, who had played with Lu in the Western League, went deep with one out in the sixth to make it 2-1.

Hirokazu Ibata was then hit by his former teammate and tried for third on Mashiko Morino's single to right. A strong throw from right fielder Feng Fei nearly nailed the runner, but the ball skipped past third baseman Sun Wei and Lu's backup plan failed.

The ball rolled away from the pitcher as Ibata scored and the first of three Chinese errors was charged to Feng.

Lu went back to the mound in the seventh but had run out of gas. A one-out double and a ground single that could have been stopped for an out made it 4-1 as Lu left the mound.

Although he couldn't finish what he started, Lu's effort was a highlight for the Stars, who fell to their ninth straight Konami Cup defeat.

"I was so happy that I pitched great for the first half of the game," Lu said. "Facing my friends, my former teammates, I didn't feel any pressure, just joy.

"My plan was just to keep the ball down and let my fielders make the plays."

While Lu was making his pitches, his fielders made the plays--so many it appeared shortstop Zhang Yufeng's arm might need icing before Lu's. The righty got seven straight groundouts to open the game and Zhang fielded five of them. The shortstop caught a broken-bat liner to end the third, made his second excellent catch of the game in the fourth, and opened the fifth with a routine groundout.

While Dragons starter Takashi Ogasawara could not match his opponent's smoking start, the lefty outlasted Lu to get the win. Ogasawara, who also joined Chunichi in 1999, allowed three hits and a walk in seven innings, while striking out three.

In a nutshell, the seven-inning stint was the difference between baseball here and in China, said Chunichi skipper Hiromitsu Ochiai.

"Fortunately--or unfortunately depending on your point of view--the starting pitching in Japanese baseball is so solid. China's game is developing. There are a lot of players with tools, but the pitchers lack stamina," Ochiai said.

"Lu shut us down for half of the game, but the skill and velocity of the second and third pitchers were not as good. That was the difference."

Although Lu allowed five runs, four earned, China manager Jim Lefebvre had nothing but praise for the 28-year-old.

"We need more pitchers like him. He pitched with a lot of heart, a lot of fighting spirit," Lefebvre said. "After he allowed two runs [in the sixth], he said, 'I want to go back out there.' That's huge."

The Wyverns, who defeated the Dragons 6-3 in the opener on Thursday, allowed just four runs in becoming the first non-Japanese team to sweep its first-round games.

"Our pitching is deep and we have [former Hiroshima Carp Kenny] Rayborn ready for tomorrow," said Wyverns skipper Kim Sung Kun.

Jeong Keun Woo, whose leadoff triple sparked the South Korean champs in a two-run first, said the final is what it's all about.

"I am so happy to win three straight, but winning tomorrow will be better," Jeong said. "I want to win and take the championship flag back to South Korea."

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