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(News Focus) (WBC) Underachieving S. Korea crashes out of WBC with sputtering offense, sloppy fielding

All Headlines 02:00 March 06, 2013

By Yoo Jee-ho

TAICHUNG, Taiwan, March 6 (Yonhap) -- Leading up to the World Baseball Classic (WBC), South Korean players and coaches talked the talk. The country was third at the inaugural WBC in 2006 and then was second in 2009. Brimming with confidence, they said they were bound to win it all in their third try.

In Taiwan, though, they couldn't walk the walk.

Despite making seven roster changes before the tournament and losing the country's only two major leaguers -- Cincinnati outfielder Choo Shin-soo and Dodgers pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin -- manager Ryu Joong-il had repeatedly said he had assembled the best national team ever, even better than the teams that ranked third at the first WBC in 2006 and second three years later.

And yet South Korea began the tournament with a 5-0 loss to the Netherlands last Saturday. It beat Australia 6-0 on Monday and also Taiwan 3-2 Tuesday, but that wasn't enough to put the 2009 runner-up into the next round.

It needed to beat Taiwan by six runs, or by at least five and hope for a favorable tiebreak. South Korea had dug too large of a hole with the loss to the Dutch.

The game against Taiwan served as an apt microcosm of the team's performance in the opening round, for it featured an offense that couldn't capitalize on chances and an uncharacteristically sloppy defense.

South Korea eked out just four singles in the 5-0 loss to the Netherlands on Saturday. The hitters appeared to have bounced back by getting 11 hits off Australia in the 6-0 win, but they returned to their old, unproductive selves Tuesday against Taiwan until the three-run eighth inning.

South Korea had a runner on base in each of the first six innings. A timely hit or two could easily have given the team enough momentum before Taiwan came to life and took a 2-0 lead after four innings.

The big guns for South Korea failed to come through when the team needed them the most.

Lee Seung-yeop, batting third, hit a weak pop fly with two runners on in the third inning. He has made a career out of clutch hits in international play, but had only one hit on Tuesday.

Kim Tae-kyun, the reigning batting champion in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), made a pinch hit appearance with the bases loaded in the fourth, but he hit a fly out to left field.

Lee Yong-kyu and Jeong Keun-woo, who alternated as the lead-off man and No. 2 hitter in the first round, once again couldn't generate much spark at the top. Lee, leading off against Taiwan, was 0-for-3 and was hit by a pitch. Jeong was 0-for-2 but got on base twice with two walks.

His day on the base path also wasn't very productive, as he was thrown out twice, first at third base following an errant throw to second in a steal attempt, and then at home when he tried to score from first in the fifth inning.

For the tournament, Lee picked up just two hits in eight at-bats. Jeong was hitless in his 11 at-bats.

Sub-par fielding also hurt South Korea. In the third inning against Taiwan, center fielder Jeon Jun-woo bobbled the ball on a single that he should have handled easily, and the mishap allowed the runner, Yang Dai-Kang, to score all the way from first.

The play brought more than 23,400 vociferous fans, almost entirely Taiwanese, into the game. Though Taiwan ultimately blew the lead, it did just enough to secure a berth in the next round.

Almost as much as these physical problems, South Korean players may also be guilty of lacking the mental fortitude that defined earlier national teams.

Committing four fielding errors in a game, especially against the underdog, is a cardinal sin in baseball. The South Korean infield had two errors in the first inning against the Netherlands alone, and before the players knew what hit them, they ended up losing 5-0.

Ahead of that opening match, South Korean manager Ryu Joong-il and other players had said there wasn't much to fear about the Dutch team. But on Tuesday, hours before the game against Taiwan, Ryu acknowledged the Netherlands took his team by surprise.

"Maybe we took them a bit too lightly," the manager said. "But they also played better than we'd expected."

That Ryu was surprised at all illustrates an apparent lack of advance scouting on the South Korean part.

After the Dutch victory, media reports revealed that Ryan Sadowski, a former pitcher for the KBO team Lotte Giants, offered a detailed scouting report on the Korean team here for the Dutch manager, Hensley Muelens.

Muelens, a hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants, asked Sadowski, a former San Francisco pitcher who spent three seasons in the KBO, to share his knowledge of South Korean players.

It's hard to determine exactly how much Sadowski's report helped the Netherlands, but it was telling that South Korea didn't even ask the ex-Lotte pitcher for any help.

"Obviously, I was surprised no one from the Korean team contacted me for a report on the Dutch hitters I've seen. I would have been happy to send them a report in Korean," Sadowski was quoted as saying in an article on FOX Sports. "I would have been more than happy to make it an even playing field."

Instead, South Korean scouts hastily built their report based on the few practice matches that the Dutch played in Taiwan.

Expectations raised by the country's strong finishes at the two earlier WBCs only set up fickle baseball fans for disappointment. Ryu, the manager, said after Tuesday's game that the opening round exit had been a good learning experience.

"The profile of Korean pro baseball had been raised a great deal after the first two WBCs," he said. "Hopefully, we will take this opportunity to take the next step."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
(END)

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