Sun expected to shine at WBC

Chinese star Sun Lingfeng takes some batting tips from National Team manager Jim Lefevbre.

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- There are such obvious similarities in the way he looks, and the way he plays, Sun Lingfeng has been called "The Ichiro of China."

Any fly ball hit within Lingfeng's considerable range in center field becomes an out. A slow ground ball he hits practically anywhere becomes a hit. And a pitch thrown in his small wheelhouse is liable to become a home run.

"He has tremendous speed and surprising power for a little guy," Jim Lefebvre said. "I've seen him hit a ball over the first-base bag, then hit one over the third-base bag, and then hit a home run."

Being compared to Ichiro Suzuki, the Mariners' five-time All-Star and Major League Baseball's single-season record holder in hits (262 in 2004) could be considered a supreme compliment.

But Lingfeng isn't sure about the accuracy of the comparison.

"That is other people's opinion," he said through an interpreter during a recent workout at Scottsdale Community College where the China National Team is preparing for the World Baseball Classic. "I have my own style and I have only seen him play on television, so I don't know if I am like him."

Both slap the ball to all fields and run like the wind. Ichiro has a much stronger arm, but Sun seems to have a lot more fun. He constantly smiles and openly jokes with his teammates during practice, acting more like a 16-year-old than a 27-year-old.

As the China team's manager the past three years, Lefebvre has watched Lingfeng develop as a ballplayer and can only imagine just how good Sun (pronounced SOON) would now be if he had received more instruction, and played more games, in his teens and early 20s.

"If he had had a chance to play Little League, high school, Babe Ruth and so on, there is no telling where he could be right now," Lefebvre said. "His legs alone make him Major League-quality."

The sport is making a comeback in China as the nation prepares for the 2008 Summer Olympics and the world soon will get a glimpse of this 5-foot-8 bundle of energy from Beijing.

The second game of the inaugural World Baseball Classic -- on March 3 at the Tokyo Dome -- features Sun and Ichiro, the leadoff hitters for China and Japan, respectively.

First-round action in the 16-team WBC will be played at four sites. Pool A, consisting of Japan, Korea, Chinese Taipei and China, will meet in Tokyo on March 3-5. Pool B, featuring USA, Canada, Mexico and South Africa, will play at Chase Field in Phoenix and Scottsdale Stadium on March 7-10. Pool C is Puerto Rico, Cuba, Panama and the Netherlands, and will play at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 9-10. Pool D, featuring the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Australia and Italy, will play at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla., on March 7-10.

The second-round is scheduled for Anaheim (March 12-16) and San Juan (March 12-15), while the semifinals (March 18) and championship game (March 20) will be played at PETCO Park in San Diego.

Lingfeng says he is looking forward to the WBC because the event gives him and his teammates another chance to gauge their collective abilities against some of the best players in the world.

And if last year is any indication, the better the competition, the better Lingfeng plays.

After batting .356 during the China Baseball League season last summer, and then leading his team to a third-place finish in the Asian Games to qualify for the World Cup in Holland, LingFeng helped China win three of its first six games there, batting .379 (11-for-29).

But China's Sun went down midway through an eventual 7-5 victory over Sweden in the World Cup. And down went China's hopes of advancing to the medal round of the tournament.

"He made a wide turn at first base after getting a hit and as he dove back into the base, the first baseman's knee inadvertently hit (Lingfeng's) left shoulder," Lefebvre recalled. "It separated Sun's collarbone and he needed surgery to repair the damage."

The strength in Lingfeng's left shoulder remains far short of 100 percent.

With Lingfeng sidelined, China lost its final two World Cup games and was eliminated from the 18-team event. As it was, China defeated South Africa (11-1), Brazil (6-5 in 15 innings) and Sweden, losing to the Netherlands (13-3), Panama (5-4) and Cuba (12-8), the eventual champions.

"Sun did well in the Asian games, did great in Italy during our pre-World Cup tour, and was doing great in Holland before he was injured," Lefebvre said. "The better the competition got, the better he got."

Lingfeng is regarded as the best overall player in China, and is the undisputed team leader.

"He is the kind of kid other players respect. He's just a good guy and a good player," Lefebvre said.

"He plays very hard all the time," said catcher Wang Wei, a teammate since the seventh grade. "Sometimes, a play he makes will inspire the whole team."

Shen Wei, the secretary general of Chinese Baseball, believes speed and intelligence separates Lingfeng from other players, making him stand out around his teammates.

"His shape is not good for baseball," she said. "He is tiny, skinny, and many coaches in China would not select him as a baseball player. But he is really smart and runs fast. He has his own defensive and batting skills."

Sun has led the China Baseball League in stolen bases the past three years, including 19 (in 30 games) last season. He runs the bases aggressively, but not foolishly.

"What he's going to do (in the WBC) is show a lot of people that he can compete at a very high level and elevate everyone's opinion of the baseball talent in China," Lefebvre said. "When he's hitting well, he is a fun guy to watch."

Jim Street is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.