Manila softbelles edge Puerto Rico, gain World Series final
Their world Series title ambitions hanging by a thread, the softbelles from Manila put together one big resilient effort to keep their dream alive.
In a comeback for the ages, the Asia-Pacific champions, who almost did not make the tournament because of lack of funds, rallied from five runs down in the last two innings to nip Puerto Rico, 8-7, Tuesday and reach the final of the 2011 Big League Softball World Series in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Proving that they can rise to the challenge, the Manila softbelles, egged on by the large Filipino gallery, scored all of their runs in the last three innings to erase 0-5 and 2-7 deficits against the team from the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan and end up with a 7-2 win-loss record for a third finals appearance in four years.
The girls of coaches Ana Santiago and Randy Dizer actually tied with US Central Grand Rapids and host Kalamazoo on top of the standings after the round-robin elimination, but Manila got the first finals berth because of the winner-over-the-other tiebreak rule.
The dramatic victory reduced the players, team officials and supporters to tears and instilled a belief that this could finally be Manila’s year after losing to Grand Rapids in their last two meetings in the finals.
Manila faces Grand Rapids, representing US Central, in the title match scheduled at 5 p.m. Wednesday (5 a.m. Thursday in Manila).
“Our job here isn’t finished yet,” said team manager Che Borromeo, who thanked sponsors who pledged to shoulder the airfare of the team. “The girls really want to win the title for the country.”
“For our girls, second place will not be enough,” said Dizer. “This may not be our strongest lineup, but the cohesion and camaraderie in this team is great and that has been very important.”
With the game tied at 7, Analie Benjamen hit a single to center, and Rissa Bernardino rushed home for the winning run, prompting wild Filipino celebrations at the Wilson Field inside Vanderberg Park.
For awhile, all seemed lost for Manila.
Veronica Belleza struggled with her pitching, giving up five runs in the first five innings, while Manila’s batters couldn’t find a way to score against Puerto Rican starter Gabriela Andino, who yielded just five hits in four and a half innings.
But Manila grabbed a lifeline when Michelle Lentija’s double sparked a two-run fifth inning surge, before Chacha Bamba belted a two-run home run at the bottom of the sixth to keep the Filipinos within striking distance, 4-7, heading into the final inning.
The 18-year-old Belleza, who started playing in the World Series in the Little League division when she was 11, delivered when the Manilans needed most, retiring the first three batters at the top of the seventh, setting the stage for the riveting last-inning comeback.
Manila loaded the bases with Gene Joy Parilla, Lentija and Belleza opening the bottom of the seventh with singles off Puerto Rico reliever Karla Claudio. Parilla reached home on a wild pitch, before a single from Rissa Bernardino scored Lentija and Belleza. Then came Benjamen’s hit and Bernardino’s furious rush to home that completed the comeback.
“The desire to win is there,” said Santiago, who plans to start Bernardino on the mound for the title clash after burning Belleza against Puerto Rico. “The girls are fighting for each other, picking each other up.”
The Manila softbelles’ campaign is backed by Allied Bank, Manila Vice Mayor Isko Moreno and the City Council, Amateur Softball Association of the Philippines head Jean Henri Lhuiller, PSC commissioner Jolly Gomez, Edwin Galvez, Harbour Centre CEO Mikee Romero, Raffy Garcia, Doy Nucum, Jojie Almeda, Smart Sports Maynilad, and Filipino Masons of Illinois.