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WBC-bound slugger, reliever trying to put bad Olympic memories behind

Feb. 21, 2023 - 09:40 By Yonhap
South Korean first baseman Kang Baek-ho takes part in batting practice for the World Baseball Classic at Kino Sports Complex in Tucson, Arizona, on Monday. (Yonhap)

TUCSON -- As international performances go, South Korea had a dismal showing at the Tokyo Olympics baseball tournament in 2021, finishing fourth in a six-nation tournament despite being seen as a strong medal contender.

Two Korea Baseball Organization players in particular, first baseman Kang Baek-ho and reliever Go Woo-suk had a tournament they'd rather forget. Some two years later, they are trying to put those memories behind as they gear up for the World Baseball Classic, whose opening round games will also be played in Japan.

After South Korea lost to the Dominican Republic 10-6 in the bronze medal game, Kang became the lightning rod for criticism, and not necessarily for his performance. Kang batted .308 in seven games at the Olympics, but in the late moments of that loss, Kang was caught on television chewing gum in the dugout with a thousand-yard stare, wearing the look of someone who'd much rather be anywhere else but there. Kang became the poster boy for what critics argued ailed the national team -- lack of determination and fire.

After the national team's practice in Tucson, Arizona, on Monday, Kang once again apologized for his behavior at the Olympics.

"I promise I will never do anything like that again at this competition," Kang told reporters at Kino Sports Complex. "My preparation for the WBC has been going well. I've been putting in a lot more work this offseason than in the past to get ramped up early."

Kang, 23, had the worst season of his five-year career for the KT Wiz in 2022, with career lows of six homers and 29 RBIs while playing in only 62 games due to injuries. He only batted .245, but his lifetime average still sits at a strong .317. And Kang has shown plenty of life in Tucson so far, batting 4-for-9 with a home run in two scrimmages for South Korea.

Kang's Wiz teammate, Park Byung-ho, is the only natural first baseman on the national team, and Kang is the only other player with extensive experience at the bag. Park is a superior defender and is expected to be the primary first baseman, leaving Kang as his backup or designated hitter.

"It doesn't matter where I play," Kang said. "I will stay ready in every game."

At the Olympics, South Korea fell to the bronze medal game after losing to Japan in the semifinals 5-2. It was Go who let Japan turn a 2-2 tie into a 5-2 lead in the fateful bottom of the eighth inning.

Go missed the first base bag while covering for what could have been an inning-ending double play. Three batters later, with the bases loaded, Go surrendered a three-run double to Tetsuto Yamada that provided the final margin of Japan's win.

"It wasn't just that game. There were moments from other games that I haven't forgotten," Go said Monday. "I just wasn't good enough then. But I think I've been able to learn from that experience and make myself a better pitcher."

Go, who led the KBO last year with 42 saves for the LG Twins, said he couldn't wait to see how he stacks up against tough international competition now.

"I want to go up there with confidence," Go said. "I think nerves really got to me at the Olympics. Now that I am older, I think I won't be as rattled on the mound."

The WBC will also be a showcase for Go, a potential candidate to take his talent overseas once he becomes eligible for posting after the 2023 season.

Go's MVP-winning friend and brother-in-law, outfielder Lee Jung-hoo, has been in the spotlight here, after Lee's KBO team, Kiwoom Heroes, announced last month that they will post him after this upcoming season. The Twins haven't made the same call on Go yet, but the hard-throwing right-hander is probably on big league clubs' radar too.

Both of South Korea's two scrimmages drew scouts from multiple major league teams.

"I wasn't sure if it was major league scouts or just tourists in the stands," Go quipped. "So I just went up there and pitched, not thinking about those people watching our games." (Yonhap)