Disappointing end to a blistering streak
Korea’s national baseball team in the inaugural World Baseball Classic may not have played the most exciting and explosive blend of baseball, but the players got the job done until Sunday’s 6-0 shutout loss to Japan in the semifinal match ended the improbable six-game winning streak.
Now that they have showcased their talent to the world, where do Korean ball players go from here?
On the Korean roster, there were five major leaguers, and they had mixed performances in the tournament.
Park Chan-ho, the first Korean player to enter the major league, currently with the San Diego Padres, was the bulwark on the Korean pitching staff. He notched three saves in three chances before getting the start against Japan in the second round of play last week. He ultimately didn’t get the win, but he didn’t allow any runs through five effective innings, frustrating Japanese hitters with fastballs and breaking balls in the dirt.
Park’s status in the Padres’ rotation was in limbo entering this season, but if his pitching during this tournament is any indication, Park should be among the starting five with the defending National League West champions.
Seo Jae-weong, who was traded from the New York Mets to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the offseason, was the starter in key games for Korea, beating Mexico for the first second-round victory, and keeping the team in the game by shutting down Japan through five innings in the semifinal.
Seo’s trade was considered in many quarters a mistake by the Mets’ front office, and if he can pick up where he left off at this tournament, Seo will be an important piece to the Dodgers’ puzzle this season.
A pair of Colorado Rockies pitchers Kim Byung-hyun and Kim Sun-woo had a “ho-hum” tournament, the former giving up the game winning two-run homer against Japan Sunday, and the latter making only one appearance against Japan in the first round. The two will be battling each other for the fifth spot in the Rockies rotation, but they didn’t do nearly enough to improve their stock.
The Dodgers first baseman Choi Hee-seop, the only Korean position player in the majors, batted just .182 for the tournament, and save for the pinch-hit, three-run home run against the United States, Choi was a huge disappointment in the cleanup spot. He struggled with offspeed pitches and didn’t show much patience at the plate.
He likely won’t get much playing time at first, after the Dodgers’ signing of converted first baseman Nomar Garciaparra in the winter, and Choi’s value may have slipped a notch following the tournament.
Lee Seung-yeop, who plays for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, had a coming out party in the tournament, leading the way with five home runs and 10 runs batted in. In the second round, he hit first inning home runs against both Mexico and the United States, the latter coming on a first pitch against the major’s winningest pitcher last season, Dontrelle Willis.
Lee has a one-year contract with the Giants, and is expected to test the U.S. market after this season. The man who once hit 56 home runs in a Korean baseball season had an excellent audition in front of the major league scouts.
Among players in the domestic league, Samsung Lions shortstop Park Jin-man was the star. The three-time Golden Glove winner in Korea, Park struggled badly at the plate with just .190 average, but put on a defensive clinic at shortstop. He turned a number of highlight-reel plays game after game, and saved a few runs in the process. The entire Korean defense finished the tournament without a single error, and Park was at the forefront of the success.
Kia Tigers veteran Lee Jong-beom, the national team captain, led the team with 10 hits and five doubles, but unfortunately, he was basically the only consistent source of offense for the team.
Leadoff hitter Lee Byung-kyu, the reigning batting champion in Korea, was abysmal at the tournament, getting just five hits in 26 at-bats. Lee Bum-ho filled in admirably for injured Kim Dong-joo at third base, but failed to generate any spark at the plate, going 3-for-17. Right fielder Lee Jin-young was another defensive stalwart, but the perennial .300 hitter in the Korean league had just three hits in 20 at-bats.
For all the pitching and defense, Korean hitters couldn’t get a base hit to save their lives in the pivotal semifinal match.
So whoever said pitching and defense win ball games wasn’t exactly right.
by Yoo Jee-ho