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(LEAD) (Asian Games) S. Korea overcomes hiccups en route to baseball title

All Headlines 21:55 September 01, 2018

(ATTN: ADDS comments at bottom)
By Yoo Jee-ho

JAKARTA, Sept. 1 (Yonhap) -- Only six days ago, in the aftermath of its embarrassing loss to a Chinese Taipei team of mostly amateurs to start the Asian Games baseball tournament, South Korea looked nothing like the championship team that it was supposed to be.

But in the end, this collection of All-Stars from the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) and former Major League Baseball (MLB) players found a way to win the gold medal. They beat Japan 3-0 in the gold medal game on Saturday for South Korea's third straight title, but things weren't always pretty on their journey to the top.

As has been the case in recent Asian Games, this was a Korean team with nothing to gain and everything to lose. This was the only fully professional team in the tournament -- the one that was not just supposed to win but to blow teams out along the way.

South Korean players and fans erupt in cheers after An Chi-hong's two-run single in the bottom of the first inning against Japan in baseball's gold medal game at the 18th Asian Games at GBK Baseball Field in Jakarta on Sept. 1, 2018. (Yonhap)

The 2010 gold medal team had current and future major league players, such as Choo Shin-soo and Kang Jung-ho. In 2014, the KBO All-Stars ran over the competition on home soil in Incheon, 40 kilometers west of Seoul, scoring 50 runs and allowing five in five games.

Unlike this year's team, those past teams never openly talked about competing under any pressure. And they even faced tougher opponents than this year because Chinese Taipei had fielded all-pro squads as well.

This year, Chinese Taipei had more amateurs than pros. Japan, which has a stronger professional league than South Korea but doesn't put any stock in Asian Games, has been sending amateurs to recent competitions.

But South Korea opened the tournament with a 2-1 loss to Chinese Taipei, which used three amateur hurlers to baffle a lineup of professionals.

South Korea came back to beat Indonesia 15-0 but, in all fairness, the Korean hitters essentially saw batting practice pitches from their overwhelmed opponent.

For the final preliminary game, South Korea hammered Hong Kong 21-3, but the score was inflated because of a 10-run outburst in the top of the ninth.

South Korean starter Im Chan-kyu gave up a home run, and Hong Kong was within three runs through five innings at 5-2.

And this is when the talk of pressure entered the picture. Manager Sun Dong-yol said the weight of expectations -- not just to bring home the gold medal but to do so convincingly -- was affecting his players. Sun said his hitters were gripping their bats too tight and were stressing over how to hit amateur pitchers.

Sun continued to be an apologist for his players. After beating China 10-1 on Friday to reach the gold medal game, Sun said -- before even being prompted -- that his players were sluggish because they'd spent too much time waiting around at the stadium. It was a 2 p.m. game, and the two teams' practice schedules had to be moved forward because of Friday prayer time in Jakarta. They did 40 minutes of batting practice starting at 10 a.m. and came back for a 10-minute fielding practice starting at 1:20 p.m.

Kim Ha-seong of South Korea (R) comes home on An Chi-hong's single in the bottom of the first inning in baseball's gold medal game against Japan at the 18th Asian Games at GBK Baseball Field on Sept. 1, 2018. (Yonhap)

The knock on South Korea after that win was that it couldn't finish China off earlier under a mercy rule. A game is declared over when a team is up by at least 15 after five or at least 10 after seven innings.

A team that couldn't put away minnows like Hong Kong and China in under nine innings didn't inspire much confidence in a fan base disgruntled for a few other reasons.

Many fans have griped that manager Sun picked some undeserving players based on their military status. An Asian Games gold medal can earn male athletes an exemption from the mandatory military service, and some past Asiad baseball teams have been criticized for turning a pursuit of a gold medal into a personal mission for some players to avoid conscription.

Sun has taken it harder than his predecessors because he went against his stated philosophy of stacking the team with versatile players by selecting Oh Ji-hwan, who can only play shortstop.

Sun once insisted he wouldn't consider players' military situations, but Oh became the poster child for everything that was wrong with Sun's selection process because he had yet to complete his military service when he was picked.

Oh could have signed up for the military club in the second-tier Futures League, Sangmu, or the National Police Agency team in the same league last year.

Only players under 27 can apply for either team, and Oh, who turned 28 earlier this year, decided to take his chance with the national team. Oh got his gold medal Saturday, though he was an unpopular champion in the eyes of many who would gladly point out Oh leads the KBO in errors and strikeouts.

At the Asian Games, Oh went 1-for-2 with a walk and two runs scored off the bench. He had a pinch-running appearance in the gold medal game.

Fans' discontent with the Asiad baseball team here illustrates how people's expectations of national team athletes have changed. The end doesn't always justify the means. It's no longer good enough just to win games and bring home medals.

Park Byung-ho, a voice of reason on the team and one of the senior players at 32, said the players were aware of the controversy surrounding them, but they tried to keep their focus on the field.

"There was nothing we could do about it," he said. "Our job was to do the best we could to win the gold medal. We still had strong support from fans in the stands, and we only wanted to do the things that we were supposed to do on the field."


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