Baseball

Panamanian-born Chen returns to mound to honor Chinese ancestors

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

This isn’t the first time that ex-major league pitcher Bruce Chen has donned a national team jersey to play in the World Baseball Classic. The left-hander competed for his native Panama in the first two tournaments in 2006 and 2009.

Now the 39-year-old is back at the global baseball championship with a different look: a vivid red Chinese national team jersey, and with a whole new mindset.

Chen hung up his glove in 2015, but returned to the diamond to contribute to the country where he has his roots in the fourth edition of the Classic.

“When I represent Panama, it was my country, and then when I represent China, there’s a lot of emotion because I haven’t played in two years, I’m representing (and) honoring my grandparents,” said Chen, whose grandparents were born in China and fled to Panama during the Chinese Civil War, after Wednesday’s China’s 6-0 Pool B loss to Cuba at Tokyo Dome.

“And my family is here. They get to see me one more time, for the last time. For me, that felt really special to go out there and lead those guys from Team China, it meant a lot to me. So it is very special. I don’t want to take the World Baseball Classic away from anything, but this World Baseball Classic has been very special to me.”

Though China was silenced by the Cuban hurlers, ending up with just one hit, Chen displayed masterful command, capitalizing on his nasty changeups. He allowed three hits and no runs in 2 2/3 innings in China’s first contest this tournament.

Chen said that he was a little nervous on the hill, partially because he had not pitched for two years, but that it’s nothing unusual when you play on a stage like the WBC.

“Whenever you know what’s at stake, you want to help the team, you know your team is counting on you,” said Chen, who attempted to play for China in the last tourney in 2013. But he and China were unable to turn in the required documents in time before the deadline.

“There’s some pressure,” he added. “The bravest guy is not the guy that just goes out there and never gets nervous. The bravest guy, even though he’s nervous, he still goes out there and performs the way he can do it. So for me, it’s like, ‘OK, I’m nervous because I care.’ “

Chen said he came out of retirement just to play for this tournament, but has no intention of returning to professional baseball.

“So we’re honored that he’s pitching for us,” China manager John McLaren said in Osaka, where his team played a pair of warm-up games last week. “I think it’s cool that he’s pitching that last game of his career for his country, where his family came from.”

Chen is pleased about being able to help Team China and its development, adding that baseball in the world’s most populated country has a lot of potential for growth in the future.

“I want baseball to be important in China,” Chen said. “And this is a big step for us. There’s 1.3 billion people in China and if we get one percent of those players and they become good, baseball overall is going to become better. That’s what we want it to be, you want to have the best level of baseball in the world and China is a big part of it. And I want to be able to help that happen.”

According to WBC rules, a pitcher can return to the mound on one day’s rest when he tosses fewer than 50 pitches. So Chen, who was pulled after tossing 49 pitches against Cuba, might pitch against Japan on Friday night.

“I’m ready for whatever they need me (to do),” said Chen, who played in the majors for 17 seasons, appearing in 400 regular-season games and compiling an 82-81 record. “After the WBC, I’m not playing baseball. I’m going to give it all and they need me to go out there.

“I saw (Japan) play last night, they looked really good, they have a really good team. There is a possibility for me to pitch against Japan. I mean, that’s why I came here and want to go out there to face the best players in the world. I faced Cuba and maybe I get a chance to help Team China win against Japan.”

Interim fireman: Seibu Lions submarine pitcher Kazuhisa Makita has closed the last two games for Samurai Japan during the ongoing WBC against Cuba and Australia on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.

Fans and the media were caught off guard by the move because they thought that Ryo Akiyoshi, a Tokyo Yakult Swallows sidearmer, would fill the role.

Yet according to pitching coach Hiroshi Gondo, Makita is only the “interim” closer for Japan. In fact, Makita said after Japan’s 4-1 win over the Aussies that he had not been told he’d be the team’s legitimate fireman.

“It’s like, ‘it’s perhaps going to be me,’ ” said the 32-year-old pitcher, who competed in the 2013 WBC and recorded a save.

It’s actually not that strange for Japan to avoid designating one closer for the WBC. In the 2006 and 2009 tourneys, Hanshin Tigers stopper Kyuji Fujikawa handled the role early on, but Akinori Otsuka, then with the Texas Rangers, and Yu Darvish, then with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, wound up replacing Fujikawa in successive competitions.Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo hinted after Wednesday’s game that all of his relief pitchers could be asked to fill the closer role for the remainder of the tournament.