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Relief pitchers, sluggers key to S. Korea's success at WBC

All Headlines 09:07 February 25, 2013

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Feb. 25 (Yonhap) -- Compared to teams such as the U.S., Dominican Republic and Venezuela, stacked with big league All-Stars at virtually every position, South Korea will be an underwhelming squad at the 2013 World Baseball Classic (WBC).

Still, South Korean players and coaches believe they have what it takes to make a run at the country's first WBC title, and they will look to the team's bullpen to play a key role.

South Korea named its provisional roster for the WBC in November last year. It finalized the roster of 28 players, including 13 pitchers, last Wednesday. In between, the country went through seven roster changes. When the dust settled, South Korea was left with scrappy infielders, three first basemen, a no-name pitching staff and not one Major League Baseball (MLB) player.

Outfielder Choo Shin-soo of the Cincinnati Reds and pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers aren't on the team, having instead chosen to participate in their teams' spring training.

There will almost certainly be no complete games by starting pitchers, at least in the early rounds. At the WBC, pitchers can throw a maximum of 65 pitches per game in the first round, 80 in the second round and 95 in the semifinals and the final.

With starters expected to last around four or five innings, the onus will fall on the relief corps to take care of the rest. South Korean manager Ryu Joong-il has said how the second and third pitchers in each game perform will be crucial to the team's success.

Submariner Chong Tae-hyon, of the Lotte Giants in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), will be an integral part of the bullpen. The 34-year-old pitched at the two previous WBCs and helped South Korea win the gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Chong has appeared in 18 international games, more than any other South Korean pitcher, and has an ERA of 1.93 in 46 2/3 innings.

Though not overpowering, Chong has a built-in advantage with his unusual delivery, and his curve and sinker are known for their late movements.

While Chong brings much experience to the table, left-handed setup man Park Hee-soo, a late bloomer at 29, will be making his first international appearance.

Park set the KBO record with 34 holds in 65 appearances in 2012 for the SK Wyverns. In his four KBO seasons, Park boasts a career 1.97 ERA in 169 innings.

With veteran southpaw Bong Jung-keun, who has a solid track record in international events, missing with a shoulder injury, Park appears to be South Korea's best left-handed option when holding a lead.

Chong, Park and the rest of the bullpen will likely hand the reins to Oh Seung-hwan to close out the game in the ninth. The Samsung Lions closer, who has been to both of the two earlier WBCs, is the KBO's career leader with 249 saves in eight seasons.

The right-hander, known for his hard fastball, has said he won't mind pitching in middle relief as long as he can help South Korea win it all.

"Every relief pitcher on the national team is a closer or a key bullpen pitcher on their respective pro clubs," Oh said. "I don't care about my role. I don't necessarily have to be the last pitcher. We all have the same purpose (of winning the title)."

On offense, South Korea has taken the unprecedented step of having three natural first basemen: Lee Seung-yeop, Kim Tae-kyun and Lee Dae-ho.

Lee Seung-yeop of the Lions owns the KBO's single-season record for home runs with 56, which he hit in 2003. He had 21 homers in 2012, his first season back in South Korea after eight seasons in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). Lee led the 2006 WBC with five homers and 10 RBIs.

Kim Tae-kyun of the Hanwha Eagles also played in Japan in 2010 and 2011. He returned to the KBO for 2012 and promptly led the league with a .363 batting average. He was the 2009 WBC leader with three home runs and 11 RBIs.

Lee Dae-ho was voted the MVP in the KBO in 2010 after winning the batting Triple Crown and leading the league in seven offensive categories. Then last year, his first NPB season, he led the Pacific League with 91 RBIs and was second with 24 home runs.

None of the three is particularly known for defense, though all of them can provide big targets for infielders to throw.

Manager Ryu Joong-il has said Lee Dae-ho will likely be his starting first baseman, with Lee Seung-yeop and Kim splitting DH and pinch hitting roles.

When South Korea needs more offense, Ryu could slide Lee Dae-ho over to third base and have Lee Seung-yeop and Kim sharing first base and DH duties. Lee Dae-ho played third base as recently as 2010 in the KBO.

Manager Ryu said he thinks this year's lineup may be more lethal than the one from the earlier WBCs.

"All of our three first basemen have experienced Japanese baseball," Ryu noted. "If they can pace our offense and lead the way for the rest, I think we will have a very good result."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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