S. Korea manager eyes semifinal berth at World Baseball Classic

SEOUL– When the 2023 World Baseball Classic (WBC) opens in March next year, South Korea will travel to Tokyo to play early-round games.

For South Korean manager Lee Kang-chul, the goal is to keep playing beyond games held in the Japanese capital. With the semifinals and the final scheduled to take place in Miami, Lee said Friday that his primary objective is “to get out of Japan.”

“At the start of the new year, we’ll speed up our preparation for the tournament, in terms of finalizing our roster, fixing our training schedule and studying our opponents,” Lee said in a phone conversation with Yonhap News Agency.
On Nov. 18, the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), which operates the country’s top professional league, unveiled its “federation interest list” of 50 players. Lee and his staff will whittle that down to 35 players for the provisional roster Wednesday, and the deadline to submit the final, 30-man roster is Feb. 7.

There are 20 countries divided into four groups of five. South Korea is in Pool B with Japan, Australia, China and the Czech Republic.

The preliminary games will be played at Tokyo Dome from March 9 to 13. The top two nations after pool play will advance to the quarterfinals and will face the top two from Pool A, made up of Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Italy, Panama and the Netherlands.

Lee, who manages the KT Wiz in the KBO, said it is crucial to get off on the right foot and take the opening game over Australia on March 9.

“Obviously, the game against Japan will be important, but in order to achieve our goal, we absolutely have to beat Australia,” Lee said. “I will travel to Australia from Jan. 5 to 9 to see Australian Baseball League games over the weekend. Then two of my coaches will be there from Jan. 10 to 15 for another scouting trip.”

This will be the fifth edition of the WBC but first since 2017. South Korea turned heads in the first two iterations, reaching the semifinals in 2006 and finishing runner-up to Japan in 2009, before getting knocked out of the opening rounds in the next two tournaments.

Combined with a disappointing showing last year at the Tokyo Olympics, where South Korea finished fourth among six nations, the national baseball team has been taking a beating from the fan base that has come to expect so much more.

With some high-end Major League Baseball (MLB) talent expected to represent rival countries in this MLB-sanctioned tournament, getting out of Japan with a ticket to Miami will be a tall order for South Korea.

Lee, however, looked at it as the glass half-full.

“Because we will be up against great players, there will be less pressure on us,” Lee said. “We may be underdogs against some teams on paper, but our national teams have always had that extra something. The key is for our players to peak in time for the tournament and play to the best of their abilities. I hope they bring a sense of responsibility and represent the country with pride.”

The interest list includes two major leaguers from South Korea, San Diego Padres infielder Kim Ha-seong and Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Choi Ji-man, and also two big leaguers of Korean descent, St. Louis Cardinals infielder Tommy Edman and Boston Red Sox outfielder Rob Refsnyder. Edman was born in the United States to an American father and a Korean mother, while Refsnyder was born in South Korea and was adopted by an American family as an infant.

Lee said his 30-man final roster will have 14 pitchers, three catchers and 13 other position players. Pitchers will face pitch count limits at the WBC, held before the start of professional league seasons in South Korea, Japan, Chinese Taipei and the U.S., Lee, one of the greatest KBO pitchers in the 1990s and longtime pitching coach, said he will soon sit down with his coaching staff to devise bullpen usage plans.

First base represents a potential hole for South Korea. Choi, a seven-year big league veteran with some pop and strong on-base skills, underwent elbow operation on Nov. 23. Choi’s agency said then that the player would need up to 12 weeks of rehab, putting him in a time crunch to get ready for the WBC.

Lee’s own first baseman for the Wiz, Park Byung-ho, is rehabbing from a right ankle injury that limited him in the final weeks of the 2022 season. Park, who led the KBO this year with 35 home runs, is expected to be ready for the Wiz’s spring training in February, but his mobility at first base may be compromised.

Lee said the national team is hoping to play exhibition games against some KBO clubs during its training camp in Arizona, beginning in mid-February. Lee’s own club, the Wiz, will be one of the foes, and Lee also asked the NC Dinos and the Kia Tigers for cooperation.

“These games will help national team pitchers stay sharp, and also help opposing hitters for KBO clubs get into game shape quicker than usual,” Lee said. “I hope NC and Kia can help us for the good of South Korean baseball.”

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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