02/27/06 10:00 AM EST
Korea seeks final four Classic finish
Power-rich squad eyes showdown with Japan, glory
By Stephen Ellsesser / Special to MLB.com
Korea also enjoys the advantage of having its top Major League Baseball stars on its roster and not losing its stars to their obligations overseas. This is most apparent among Korea's pitchers, where even Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jung-Keun Bong, who spent all of 2005 on the disabled list, took up the mantle of his country.
Korea's biggest international win came in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when it upset Japan in the bronze-medal game, giving the Koreans their only Olympic podium finish in baseball, and ensuring the Japanese would not medal for the first time since baseball became an Olympic sport. Korea has its showdown with host Japan on March 5 circled as a way to upstage Sydney.
It is important that Korea doesn't overlook its Classic opener with Chinese Taipei. A loss there would put its tournament dreams in jeopardy, ensuring the necessity of upsetting Japan to make it to California.
"We certainly think that we have a chance to advance far," KBO official Jin-Hyung Lee told a Korean paper. "Winning the whole thing is probably a stretch with powerhouses like the United States present, but we are confident that we can end up in the top four teams."
Baseball in South Korea: Baseball has been in Korea for more than 100 years, and the Korea Baseball Organization will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. The KBO now has eight teams. In 2005, the Korean champion Samsung Lions swept the Doosan Bears before finishing second to Japan's Chiba Lotte Marines in the Asia Series. Korea has fared well internationally, winning bronze at the Sydney Olympics and taking second place in recent Intercontinental Cup and IBAF World Cup tournaments.
Projected Lineup: Yong-Taik Park (CF), Jong-Kook Kim (2B), Byung-Kyu Lee (RF), Seung-Yeop Lee (1B), Hee-Seop Choi (DH), Dong-Joo Kim (3B), Shin-Soo Choo (LF), Kab-Yong Jin (C), Jin-Man Park (SS).
Likely Starters: Jae-Weong Seo, Chan-Ho Park, Sun-Woo Kim.
Strengths: Korean baseball's biggest export has been pitching, and those guys came out for the Classic, so Korea's rotation will be of Major League quality with Chan-Ho Park, Jae-Weong Seo and Sun-Woo Kim. If they are all healthy, expect them to be in good shape against Chinese Taipei and China, and believe the Koreans will be able to play right with the Japanese. They certainly do.
The logjam at first base also gives Korea some good options, and with Seung-Yeop Lee and Hee-Seop Choi handling first base and designated hitter responsibilities, Korea will have plenty of power through the middle of the lineup. Lee, who hit 56 home runs in his last KBO season, is coming off a solid 2005 season in Japan with Chiba Lotte, and Choi -- who pinch-hit in almost as many games as he started last season for the Los Angeles Dodgers -- are both eager to be playing for their country again.
|Here are some things you may not know about each of the 16 countries taking part in the first World Baseball Classic.|
|Capital:||Seoul (9.5 million)|
|Popular Sports:||golf, soccer, baseball, taekwondo, badminton|
|Favorite Foods:||kimchi (spiced cabbage), Korean barbecue, guk soup|
|Favorite Music:||K-pop (influential pop known throughout Asia as han-ryu, which means "cool wave"), Korean Pansori (storytelling music with one singer and one percussionist), Nongak (large percussion ensembles), classical music, Christian music|
|Famous Athletes:||Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward, golfer Michelle Wie, Manchester United star Ji-Sung Park, Byung-Hyun Kim, Hee-Seop Choi, gold medalist Kee-Chung Sohn, Chan-Ho Park|
|Fun Fact:||In Korea, people wear pieces of plaster called kimitae behind their ears to prevent seasickness|
Weaknesses: Korea will have plenty of power from a variety of sources, but when it comes to the outfield, power could come at a cost of defensive prowess. Korea went for offense when selecting its outfielders, as only two are Golden Glove winners, and neither one is expected to start in the Classic.
Yong-Taik Park and Jong-Beom Lee are good all-around players, and Byung-Kyu Lee has one of the strongest throwing arms in Korean baseball, but can these guys make the game-changing catches, too?
Byung-Hyun Kim prefers to be used as a closer, and Dae-Sung Koo saw extensive relief experience in 2005 with the New York Mets, but neither is dominant.
Korea has two of the KBO's premier relievers in Seung-Hwan Oh and Jae-Hun Chung, but it remains unclear who the leader of the bullpen is. And with pitch counts, bullpen identity is something the Koreans will have to figure out soon.
Keep an eye on: Yong-Taik Park. One of the best total-package center fielders in Korea, Park also has speed and some power. He led the KBO with 90 runs scored and 43 stolen bases in 2005, and the young All-Star will be a scoring threat with Seung-Yeop Lee and Choi hitting behind him.
Big Question: Can Korea live up to domestic expectations? Korean players and KBO officials alike have said they expect to make it to the Classic semifinals. Much of the world puts Japan ahead of Korea in the baseball world, and the Koreans hope to show that Asia's balance of power is shifting.
Quotable: "I can't predict scores, but I think Korea can go to the USA for the semifinals. We can beat Japan," Korean outfielder Byung-Kyu Lee on Korea's chances in the Classic
They'll advance if ... their big-league arms perform. Korea's collection of Major League pitching is seasoned and experienced against higher levels of competition, which could make a huge difference in the Classic.
Stephen Ellsesser is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.