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Opposing managers see S. Korea as team to beat in WBC's opening round

All Headlines 15:45 March 01, 2017

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, March 1 (Yonhap) -- Opposing managers on Wednesday picked host South Korea as the team to beat in the opening round of the World Baseball Classic (WBC) starting next week.

Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul will host the first-round games in Pool A, with South Korea scheduled to open the competition against Israel at 6:30 p.m. Monday.

The host will then face the Netherlands at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday and Chinese Taipei at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. The top two nations after the round-robin play will move on to the second round in Tokyo.

At their joint press conference at the dome, the managers said they feel South Korea will enjoy the advantage of playing in front of home fans at its home field.

Jerry Weinstein, manager for Israel, said he watched South Korea beat Cuba and then Australia in exhibition games in Seoul over the past few days, and he was "very impressed."

Managers of countries participating in the first round of the World Baseball Classic pose for pictures after their press conference at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on March 1, 2017. From left to right: Jerry Weinstein of Israel, Hensley Meulens of the Netherlands, Kuo Tai-Yuan of Chinese Taipei and Kim In-sik of South Korea. (Yonhap)

"It's going to be a daunting task for us," Weinstein said. "They have a very good team; they're well-managed, with very good players playing on their home turf with home fans. They will be difficult to beat."

Hensley Meulens, whose Dutch team will have the luxury of several major league stars in his infield, said South Korea, not his squad, will be the favorite in the opening round.

"They're very aggressive with bats, and they have a very good pitching staff," Meulens said. "It's going to be hard to beat them. We have to bring our A-game to get through Korea, for sure."

Kuo Tai-Yuan, who will lead Chinese Taipei, said South Korea has long excelled at international competitions, and the trend will likely hold up here.

South Korea won the 2008 Beijing Olympic gold medal and finished runner-up to Japan at the 2009 WBC. It also won the inaugural Premier 12 tournament in 2015.

Kuo noted that when Chinese Taipei hosted the first round at the 2013 WBC, the players felt some pressure of playing in front of home fans. He said South Korea may have to deal with the similar problem.

South Korean manager Kim In-sik acknowledged that, while it's exciting to be playing baseball this early in the year, "We'll be playing under a lot of pressure."

"Since we'll be going up against strong countries, we'll have to do the best we can to live up to our fans' expectations," Kim said. "It's a short tournament, and every game will play out like a championship game. I think the team that commits the most mistakes will get knocked out."

Despite other managers' predictions, South Korea, at least on paper, may just have its weakest WBC roster since the tournament began in 2006.

A handful of Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) stars pulled out following offseason surgeries, including former MVP-winning left-hander Kim Kwang-hyun and All-Star second baseman Jeong Keun-woo. Both have been national team fixtures for several years.

Among South Korean major league players, Los Angeles Dodgers' Ryu Hyun-jin and Minnesota Twins' Park Byung-ho were never considered because of surgeries and off-season rehab. Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers and Kim Hyun-soo of the Orioles were dropped from the provisional roster because of their club commitments. Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Kang Jung-ho was cut from the team following a DUI accident in December.

That has left St. Louis Cardinals closer Oh Seung-hwan as the only big leaguer on the national team.

"I think the four teams are fairly evenly matched," Kim In-sik said. "But the team with the most major leaguers should play well."

Kim was referring to the Netherlands, a team he'd earlier picked as South Korea's toughest foe in the opening round.

The Netherlands will boast an infield stacked with five big leaguers, including Boston Red Sox third baseman Xander Bogaerts and Los Angeles Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

They'll be joined by Jonathan Schoop of the Baltimore Orioles, Didi Gregorius of the New York Yankees and Jurickson Profar of the Texas Rangers.

Bogaerts, Gregorius and Schoop all hit at least 20 home runs last season. Simmons, a two-time Gold Glove winner, is considered one of the finest defensive players at any position in baseball.

Meulens, who also managed the Netherlands when it beat South Korea 5-0 in the first round four years ago, said he won't take any opponent lightly.

"We have big expectations on ourselves representing our country, and we'll try to play up to our capabilities," he said. "We have to pitch well, play good defense, get timely hits and run the bases. And the two teams that have all those four things together will probably come out on top."

Israel will have some former major league veterans and minor league prospects of Jewish descent. Weinstein said it's "a neophyte program" and he still doesn't know the names of all players.

One thing he does know is that the team's focus is on itself.

"We'll do what we can do and not worry so much about what the other team does," Weinstein said. "We'll try to play to our strength. We've only been together a short period of time, but they are all professional players with a lot of experience. They won't be intimidated."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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