In a comeback thriller, Korea wins gold

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In a comeback thriller, Korea wins gold

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Korean national team players celebrate Sunday night after coming from behind to win the gold medal by beating Taiwan, 6-3, at Munhak Baseball Stadium. [NEWSIS]

When Korea closer Bong Jung-keun got Taiwan’s Lin Ken Wei to fly out to end the game, all the members of the national team sprinted to the mound holding small taegeukgi (national flags) to celebrate their back-to-back gold medals in the Asian Games. Amid the smiles, there were some tears as they let out triumphant yells.

Sunday’s 6-3 victory was good for more than just a medal: For 13 players on the team’s 24-man roster, it also meant an exemption from Korea’s two-year military service requirement.

With Taiwan leading, 3-2, in the championship game at Munhak Stadium, Korean scored four runs in the eighth inning for a dramatic come-from-behind victory.

After Kang Jung-ho was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded and Na Sung-bum’s fielder’s choice RBI gave Korea a 4-3 lead, Hwang Jae-gyun blasted a two-run RBI single.

Reliever An Ji-man was the pitching hero of the night for not allowing Taiwan to score after getting runners on first and third with no outs in the seventh inning.

An also retired the side in order in the eighth to set the stage for Lim Chang-yong and Bong Jung-keun.

When the final out was counted, the celebration by Korean fans rocked the stadium, but the happiest people in Munhak were the 13 players whose baseball careers won’t be interrupted by two years in the military: Oh Jae-won, Kim Min-sung, Hwang Jae-gyun, Kim Sang-su, Son Ah-seop, Na Sung-bum and Na Ji-wan, and pitchers Cha Woo-chan, Yoo Won-sang, Han Hyun-hee, Lee Jae-hak, Lee Tae-yang and Hong Seong-moo.

“I think this was the game where I celebrated the most on the field,” said Hwang Jae-gyun. “I’m not the type of player who yells at the bench and raises my arms high on first base after a hit, but I think it just came out because I was so excited. It was my first national team experience, and I learned a lot as I played with so many good players.”

Since winning a gold medal in the Asian Games offers the exemption to Korean male athletes and baseball is one of the most popular sports in the country, there were differences of opinion leading up to the Games about the number and quality of eligible players selected by manager Ryu Joong-il.

But most of those players who will get the exemption proved they are deserving. Hwang Jae-gyun had the two-run RBI single in the eighth and pitcher Lee Tae-yang threw four scoreless innings against China in the semifinal on Saturday. Outfielder Son Ah-seop hit second in the batting order in all five games, and Oh Jae-won was the team’s only second baseman.

“Everyone on the team played under a huge amount of pressure because they know the nation thinks that losing the final is something they could not accept,” said the manager after the game. “I think the entire squad should thank [reliever] An Ji-man, as he didn’t allow a run at the game’s toughest moment. When An closed the seventh inning, the atmosphere on the bench suddenly changed, and I saw a strong fighting spirit in the eyes of the players.”

Kim Hyun-soo, who was a member of the national team when Korea won a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, offered his perspective.

“Every time we participate in an international competition, people always speak about the military exemption benefit,” said Kim. “But as an athlete who plays with a national flag on his uniform, nothing is worth more than winning for the country. I really want the fans to know how hard we play for the country.”



BY KWON SANG-SOO [sakwon80@joongang.co.kr]

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