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S. Korea to begin quest for first World Baseball Classic crown this week

All Headlines 08:32 February 25, 2013

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Feb. 25 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will begin its quest for its first World Baseball Classic (WBC) 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 match 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 (MLB) 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.

Outfielder Choo Shin-soo of the Cincinnati Reds and pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers have committed themselves to big league spring training. Only one player, first baseman Lee Dae-ho of the Orix Buffaloes in Japan, plays in an overseas league. The rest are members of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) clubs.

South Korea had to make seven personnel changes before finalizing its roster last week. This has led many to believe South Korea won't work the same magic as the previous two WBCs, but one of the team's senior players begged to differ.

First baseman Lee Seung-yeop, a veteran of the 2006 WBC squad, said South Korea has always thrived when labeled the underdog.

"At the first two WBCs, our players exceeded expectations," said Lee, who led the 2006 tournament with five home runs and 10 RBIs. "Our greatest strength is our teamwork. When people say we're not a strong team, it will only motivate us to play well."

On the other side of the globe, Puerto Rico will host Pool C matches, featuring Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Spain. Pool D nations of the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Italy will play their first round matches in Phoenix, Arizona.

The second round games from Pool C and Pool D teams will be played in Miami, Florida.

For the semifinals and the championship match, the countries will gather in San Francisco. AT&T Park, the home of the 2012 World Series champions, the San Francisco Giants, will be the venue for both semifinal games and the final from March 17 to 19.

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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