New Zealand's Diamondblacks are through to the final of the World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament against hosts and overwhelming favourites Chinese-Taipei after winning a second sudden death clash against the Philippines last night.
After eliminating Thailand 12-2 on Friday, the Diamondblacks had even more cause for celebration in their international debut after defeating the Philippines 10-6 once the contest finally got underway after a more than four hour rain delay.
They face an ominous rematch tonight with the world No.8-ranked nation at Xinzhuang Stadium - Chinese Taipei thrashed the New Zealanders 10-0 inside eight innings on day one and also blitzed the Philippines 16-0, a one-sided clash also ended prematurely by the mercy rule.
"We're going to have to play a very tight game," said New Zealand manager Andy Skeels said ahead of a finale where the winner reaches the next phase of qualifying for the 16-team WBC at San Francisco in March.
"We're going to have to pitch well, we're going to have to get some big hits. We're going to have to execute on defence. We are going to [have to] play a good game to beat these guys but coming off the last two games, our team's got a lot confidence," he said.
Experienced shortstop Scott Campbell, who was close to becoming the first New Zealander to play Major League Baseball with the Toronto Blue Jays before injury intervened, spearheaded the Diamondblacks' offence against the Philippines with a double, three RBIs and a run.
New Zealand led 10-2 after seven innings but the concession of four innings at the bottom of the eighth caused some heart flutters before Lincoln Holdzkom, the oldest pitcher on the roster, stepped up to the plate to thwart the Filipino resurgence.
Nick Dawson and Joe Boyce both conceded a brace as the Diamondblacks normally reliable fielding also wilted under pressure until the 30-year-old was summoned to save the day.
He conjured up an inning-ending double play and tossed a perfect ninth inning to seal New Zealand's progression.
Holdzkom's younger brother John threw impressively earlier in the match until he was rested in order to be refreshed for a tough encounter with a powerful Chinese-Taipei batting line-up.
Skeels said although his team got "sloppy" in the bottom in the eighth, he was still happy with a balanced performance.
"We had a little bit of everything - momentum swings and a lot of great pitching for a big part of the ball game," Skeels said.
"Overall, we ran the bases well, we are very, very pleased."
Costly errors by the Filipino infielders, particularly first baseman Leighton Pangilinan, enabled New Zealand to grab the initiative to the top of the third by scoring three runs on two defensive glitches to overcome an early 1-0 deficit.
Pangilinan's failure to step on the base when receiving a throw following a grounder by Moko Moanaroa opened a forgettable inning for the Philippines as Max Brown and Alan Schoenberger loaded the bases.
Shortstop Ryan Pineda's tardy throw to second base brought Moanaroa and Brown home while a Campbell sacrifice fly enabled Schoenberger to notch the Diamondblacks third.
A wild pitch by Charlie Labrador and another fielding error by Pangilinan then set the scene for Tim Auty, Campbell and Daniel Lamb-Hunt to produce an impregnable lead at the top of the fifth.
Runs will not be as easy to come by against Chinese-Taipei - its pitchers gave up six hits against the Diamondblacks and just one against the Philippines.
New Zealand had actually out hit their hosts 6-3 on Thursday until Chinese-Taipei got into the zone at the bottom of fifth and piled on eight runs to essentially end the contest.
- © Fairfax NZ News