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China's Sluggers Aim to Be a Hit in Japan
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Jim Lefebvre, China's national baseball team manager, is full of confidence as he leads his group of young talents into the four-team Konami Cup Asia Series 2006 in Tokyo.


Although hampered by injuries that forced out four top players Lefebvre said the team was ready to make their mark in a tournament with domestic league champion teams from Japan, South Korea and Chinese Taipei.


"The number one thing is our team is playing with confidence," Lefebvre, the former Los Angeles Dodgers infielder and Seattle Mariners manager said yesterday. "We come here with some injuries but trust me this won't be an excuse and we will play our best," he said.


The Chinese team's record in the tournament is poor. During the inaugural edition last year the squad lost to the Sinon Bulls from Chinese Taipei, Korea's Samsung Lions and Japan's Chiba Lotte Marines 6-0, 8-3 and 3-1 respectively.


Traveling to the Tokyo Dome for the second time the Chinese team has star players from domestic league teams. They'll play La New Bears from Chinese Taipei today, Samsung Lions tomorrow and Japan's new national champions, Nippon Ham Fighters, on Friday.


Lefebvre believes they've found the key to victory when playing against elite league teams. China has only won once against one of Asia's "Big Three" - Japan, South Korea and Chinese Taipei - at any senior level of competition.


"They know how to win and they know what to do to win," he said. "Now we're going to do it on the field." He asks his players to "do little things" against the big-hitting teams.


"We're not a team with lots of power," said Lefebvre. "I think someday we'll have power but now we are a team that needs to put the ball into play and do the little things such as moving the runners into scoring positions."


A tough and hustling approach is likely to be China's biggest weapon.


"We must play nine hard innings," Lefebvre said. "We'll play the game hard and play it right. That's the kind of baseball we want so we can be competitive."


The tournament will also be a huge test for the new faces in the team.


Four top players are missing including Wang Nan, who was MVP at the Asian Baseball Championships last year when China won a historic bronze medal by edging out South Korea 4-3. He's taking a half-year break after undergoing surgery in the US.


"Definitely that has some influence on the team," said Shen Wei, secretary-general of the China Baseball Association. "But we won't take it as a totally bad thing because the opportunity is now open to young players. They'll gain experience which is good for the future."


Team captain Zhang Yufeng believes the fresh blood will be a catalyst for the team. "I think the level of the team is even better with these new players," Zhang said. "They improved dramatically under coach Lefebvre's leadership. We have a big opportunity to win a game."


The performance of the Chinese team here is even more significant with the Beijing Olympics coming up fast. "This is the team we are preparing for the 2008 Games," said Shen. "We've been enjoying very solid improvement over the past few years."


China is looking forward to writing a new chapter in the nation's baseball history by winning a medal at the 2008 Games. Aiming for this ambitious goal Chinese officials started to prepare early scouting talent throughout the nation and inviting the US Major League Baseball coaches Lefebvre and Bruce Hurst to assist four years ago.


(China Daily November 9, 2006)

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