South Korea will begin its quest for its first World Baseball Classic championship this week in Taiwan, trying to shake off its underdog label with yet another surprising march through the tournament.
Manager Ryu Joong-il will lead the team of 28 players, including 13 pitchers, into Taichung Intercontinental Stadium in Taiwan for first round action. South Korea has been paired with Taiwan, Australia and the Netherlands in Pool B of this March 2-19 tournament.
South Korea’s opening game will be against the Netherlands on Saturday, followed by games against Australia next Monday and against Taiwan next Tuesday.
South Korea reached the semifinals at the first WBC in 2006 and was the runner-up to Japan in 2009. Despite carrying a roster already decimated by injuries, Ryu has said the natural next step for the country is to win it all on its third try.
“Because we did so well at the earlier WBCs, we’re definitely under pressure to live up to expectations this year,” the manager said.
“But I can promise our fans that we will prepare the best we can and achieve our best result ever at the third WBC.”
South Korea’s path to the final will have to go through Japan, both literally and figuratively.
South Korea and Taiwan are favorites in Pool B. If they reach the second round, they will take on the top two countries from Pool A, made up of Japan, Cuba, China and Brazil. These four will play their first round games in Fukuoka, Japan.
The second round games for Pool A and Pool B qualifiers will take place in Tokyo.
Japan, the two-time defending WBC champion, and Cuba, the 2006 WBC runner-up, should have little trouble making it out of the first round. It would set up yet another showdown between South Korea and Japan, two bitter baseball rivals.
By quirks of draws, the two squared off three times at the 2006 WBC and five times three years later. They have split those eight games.
This year, South Korea and Japan can meet for a maximum three games ― up to two times in the second round and, potentially, in the championship final.
The second round takes a double elimination format, meaning it will take two losses, rather than one, for a team to be knocked out of the competition.
The Pool A winner will face the Pool B runner-up, while the Pool B winner will take on the Pool A runner-up.
The losing teams from these two games will play each other in a consolation match of sorts, with the winner staying alive in the tournament.
Japan will not have a Major League Baseball player in the lineup, a big blow to a country that boasts some All-Star caliber big league pitchers.
Cuba, though a perennial baseball power, is regarded as a team in transition and may no longer instill fear in opponents with dominant pitchers and free-swinging sluggers.
Still, getting past these two countries appears to be a tall order for South Korea, which will also be missing its only two MLB players. (Yonhap News)