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Stuck in middle ground, S. Korean baseball faces painful transition

March 14, 2023 - 09:30 By Yonhap
South Korean players celebrate their 22-2 victory over China in a Pool B game at the World Baseball Classic at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo on Monday. (Yonhap)

TOKYO -- The third time wasn't quite the charm for South Korea at this year's World Baseball Classic.

South Korea crashed out of the first round at each of the past two WBCs in 2013 and 2017. The third crack at reaching the second round this year was supposed to be different. On paper, South Korea seemed to have just the right balance of veteran savvy and youthful exuberance.

Over the course of four games in a five-day span in Tokyo, it turned out South Korea just had old players who were no longer any good, and young guns who weren't ready for the big stage just yet. And the team didn't have enough production from players in between.

The upshot was yet another first-round exit. South Korea opened the tournament with an 8-7 loss to Australia, wasting a 4-2 lead in a game that the team had long pegged as a must-win affair. South Korea then took a 13-4 loss against Japan, blowing a 3-0 lead.

With these two defeats, South Korea didn't control its own destiny and needed help from other countries to squeeze into the quarterfinals as one of the top two teams in Pool B.

It wasn't meant to be. South Korea closed out with a 7-3 win over the Czech Republic and a 22-2 rout of China but didn't get the results it needed from other games.

"I'll go home and calmly reflect on what went right and what went wrong in this tournament," manager Lee Kang-chul said after the China game Monday night. "The players worked really hard for this tournament, and they did their best. We ended up with this result because I wasn't good enough as manager."

But is it really that simple?

With South Korea now stuck in the middle ground -- veterans aging quickly and younger playing still maturing -- it could take a painful few years before the country returns to international baseball relevance.

The old guards of the national team, established stars of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), showed their age in Tokyo.

On the mound, Kim Kwang-hyun and Yang Hyeon-jong, both 1988 births, were supposed to be the leaders of the staff.

Yang, a veteran starter, willingly accepted a move to the bullpen. With a 66-pitch limit on hurlers in the opening round, strong middle relief would be at a premium here, and Yang, who has some relief experience from early in his career, seemed to be a perfect fit.

However, Yang failed to retire a batter against Australia. Hitters went single-double-home run against the left-hander, extending Australia's lead from 5-4 to 8-4. Yang never pitched again in the tournament.

Manager Lee at first wanted to use Kim in the same role as Yang. But Kim openly balked at the idea, and Kim ended up starting the crucial second game against Japan. Korea-Japan baseball games always carry high intensity, regardless of the context, but it was especially the case for South Korea here after its opening loss to Australia.

Kim struck out five across his first two innings, but things unraveled in a hurry in the bottom of the third, after South Korea had built a 3-0 lead. Kim walked the first two batters and then gave up two straight hits. Japan ended up scoring four times in that frame and never trailed again the rest of the game.

Kim had some memorable outings against Japan early in his career, dating back to the late 2000s. This was clearly not that version of Kim. His fastballs no longer had the same zip, and his sliders weren't as sharp.

That Lee chose to start Kim in such a huge game is also an indictment of the rest of the pitching staff.

When healthy, left-hander Koo Chang-mo, 26, is one of the most dominant starters in the Korea Baseball Organization. Early in South Korea's training camp for the WBC, Koo was a candidate to start the Japan game, an heir apparent to Kim on an international stage.

Koo, however, struggled to find his grip on the WBC ball, which has a slicker surface and lower seams than the KBO ball. He couldn't find the zone in a relief outing against Japan, giving up two singles against three batters he faced before being taken out. Koo only pitched once more, in a blowout over China with the game all but decided.

This year's team featured four pitchers born after 2000 -- Won Tae-in, Kim Yun-sik, So Hyeong-jun and Lee Eui-lee -- and none of them impressed.

Kim Yun-sik walked 2.13 batters per nine innings last year, the fifth-lowest rate on the national team, but went walk-hit by pitch-walk against Japan. He was deemed unplayable after that.

Up and down the lineup, South Korea will have to develop new names for the next WBC in 2026.

The two catchers, Yang Eui-ji and Lee Ji-young, were also two of the oldest players on the entire team at 35 and 37, respectively. Choi Jeong, 36, was the only natural third baseman. Park Byung-ho appeared in every game, either starting or off the bench, at age 36. After South Korea's closing victory over China, captain and outfielder Kim Hyun-soo announced his international retirement at age 35.

In the 20-something crowd, only Lee Jung-hoo, 24, and Kang Baek-ho, 23, saw regular action. They batted a combined 13-for-28 with four doubles and seven RBIs in four games, Ideally, South Korea will see similar production from more players in that age group down the road.

The youth movement should start this fall at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.

The KBO had long decided to send under-24 players or those with less than three years of professional experience to the competition. But the league is also about to name three over-age players, a move that appears shortsighted with the immediate result in mind.

Winning the Asian Games gold medal over inferior competition while relying on a couple of 30-something veterans won't help the long-term health of the national team program. In light of the disappointing WBC, the Asian Games will be the perfect opportunity for unproven and untested young talent to get their first taste of international competition.

Kim Hyun-soo blamed nerves for South Korea's underwhelming run, how even a veteran like himself struggled to control his emotions. Manager Lee put the unsuccessful tournament squarely on his shoulders, saying it was due to his inadequate work as skipper, not his players' effort, that South Korea couldn't reach the quarterfinals.

Whatever the reason may be, there will be plenty of soul searching for South Korean baseball. (Yonhap)