Team Korea looks for victory at World Baseball Classic

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Team Korea looks for victory at World Baseball Classic

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Team Korea poses during its launch ceremony in Seoul yesterday ahead of the upcoming World Baseball Classic in March. [NEWSIS]


Seven years have made a dent in his vigor, and Lee Seung-yeop, now at 36, is not as an imposing figure as he used to be when he led Korea’s surprise semifinal run during the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

In what could be his last WBC campaign, however, Lee is pledging that he will play the role required of him to win the improbable. That is, he said, to help Korea win the baseball version of the FIFA World Cup.

“Korea beat expectations and had great results in the first and second [World Baseball Classic] events,” Lee said during Team Korea’s launch ceremony in Seoul yesterday.

Korea, which finished in third in the first WBC event in 2006, finished runner-up in the second event in 2009. Its third-straight run into semifinal territory looks doubtful, however, as the team has lost several key players to injuries such as Bong Jung-keun, a former Major League pitcher.

At the same time, Korea’s two incumbent Major Leaguers, Choo Shin-soo of the Cincinnati Reds and newly signed Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers decided to take a miss in favor of training in the big league.

And yet, Lee remains optimistic.

“Our strength is teamwork,” Lee said. “I will try my best and help the team to a better outcome. I will try to make a ‘Miracle of March’ happen.”

Lee, already an established name in Japan, provided crucial help for Korea in the 2006 event with five homers and 10 RBI, a better record for both categories than any other player from the 16 participating countries.

His stellar performance at the WBC piqued the interest of Major League scouters, but after a disappointing season in 2008 due to an injury, his reputation slowly began to wither. Lee forfeited a chance to compete in the 2009 WBC event to revive his record in Japan.

Ending his eight-year stint in Japan in 2011, Lee managed to make an impressive comeback to the Korea Baseball Organization and won his eighth Golden Glove Award, but he did not appear so confident even in receiving the latest accolade.

He gave little help when his team, the Samsung Lions, two-time defending champions in the KBO, succumbed to the Lamigo Monkeys of Taiwan 3-0 during the Asia Series in Busan in November.

He may get a chance to make amends for his performance when Korea faces host Taiwan in the first round of the third WBC to be held in March or in the second round, when the two winners of Pool A and Pool B play each other.

Korea, the top seed in Pool B, is also paired with the Netherlands and Australia.

But Lee has set his sights beyond Taiwan and is seeking to revenge on Japan, the two-time winner that is likely to advance to the second round from Pool A along with Cuba.

Korea exchanged four wins and four losses with Japan during the two previous WBC events, but Japan won more crucial showdowns, including the semifinal of the 2006 event and the final of the 2009 event.

“It still pains me that we didn’t make it to the final with our loss to Japan,” Lee said. “To not repeat the painful experience of 2006, I will work harder. This time, we will get them back by winning the event.”

With the latest Team Korea led by his Lions manager Ryu Joong-il, Lee will have to compete for the spotlight and playing time with two other star sluggers, Kim Tae-kyun of the Hanwha Eagles and Lee Dae-ho of Japan’s Orix Buffaloes. But Lee said he will put competition aside.

“Regardless of the circumstances or my position, I will help the team win. I think that’s what I am supposed to do,” Lee said.

By Moon Gwang-lip [joe@joongang.co.kr]
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