(ATTN: ADDS details, comments from paras 13-20, photos)
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, April 15 (Yonhap) -- Host South Korea will open its 2020 Olympic baseball qualifying campaign against Australia on Nov. 6 in Seoul.
The schedules for Group C action at the Premier 12 were unveiled by the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) at a press conference in Seoul on Monday. All Group C games will be played at Gocheok Sky Dome in the nation's capital.
The Premier 12, featuring the top 12 countries in the world rankings, will double as the first qualifying tournament for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
South Korea is the top-ranked nation in Group C at No. 3, followed by Cuba (No. 5), Australia (No. 7) and Canada (No. 10).
South Korea is the last Olympic champion in baseball from 2008. The sport was excluded from the following two Olympics and will make its return in the Japanese capital next year.
This is the second edition of the Premier 12. South Korea won the inaugural event in 2015.
After playing Australia, South Korea will take on Canada on Nov. 7 and then Cuba the following day. All South Korean games will start at 7 p.m.
For this year's Premier 12, the dozen participating nations have been divided into three groups of four. Group A teams are No. 2 USA, No. 6 Mexico, No. 8 Netherlands and No. 12 Dominican Republic. Their games will take place in Guadalajara, Mexico.
In Group B, world No. 1 and Olympic host Japan will face Chinese Taipei (No. 4), Venezuela (No. 9) and Puerto Rico (No. 11) in Taichung, Chinese Taipei.
The top two teams from each group will advance to the six-team Super Round, to be played at Zozo Marine Stadium in Chiba and Tokyo Dome in Tokyo. The iconic dome stadium in the Japanese capital will also host the championship final.
Baseball at Tokyo 2020 will feature six nations. The top finisher from the Americas and the top country from the Asia/Oceania region, excluding Olympic host Japan, will earn direct entries into Tokyo 2020.
This means South Korea has to rank among the top six and finish ahead of Australia and Chinese Taipei at the Premier 12 to earn a spot in the Olympics.
Riccardo Fraccari, president of the WBSC, called the upcoming Premier 12 "the most important baseball competition" of the year, because spots at the Olympics will be at stake.
"The level of this global competition will be much higher and challenging than the first edition, with each game resembling a battle," he said. "We can expect very close games and big surprises in the opening round."
The 2015 tournament was hampered by a lack of star power. Major League Baseball (MLB), which runs a separate international event, World Baseball Classic, declined to make players on 40-man rosters available for the 2015 Premier 12. The teams sent their U.S. minor league prospects, former MLB veterans and, in case of Shohei Ohtani of Japan, a future big league star.
Fraccari said he will meet with MLB to discuss inclusion of big leaguers in the tournament and added that the United States, paired in Group A with Mexico, the Netherlands and the Dominican Republic, will also be better off if it taps into its major league talent pool.
Chung Un-chan, commissioner of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), which operates the top domestic professional league, said South Korea was a logical choice to host one of the opening rounds of the Premier 12, thanks to the country's strong track record in international events.
"As one of the global leaders of baseball, we feel a great deal of responsibility and obligation," Chung said. "It's an honor to stage the opening round of the tournament in Seoul and bring some of the world's very best to our country."
Kim Kyung-moon, the national team manager, said he's excited to have a chance to put on a show before home fans.
"This will be my first international tournament in quite some time, and I am really looking forward to this prestigious event," said Kim, who coached South Korea to gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and returned to the helm in January this year. "We'll try to rewrite the history of South Korean baseball."
The WBSC Executive Board decided earlier this year that if no team from Asia or Oceania finishes among the top six at the Premier 12, that Olympic slot shall be deferred to the last Olympic Qualifier.
The WBSC will organize separate qualifiers for Africa/Europe and the America regions. The WBSC's intercontinental qualifier, featuring six teams, will be the final opportunity for countries to book their spots at Tokyo 2020. That event will feature the runner-up from the Africa/Europe qualifier, the second- and third-place finishers from the Americas qualifier, the two best finishers from the 2019 Asian Championship that haven't already qualified for the Olympics and the winner of the Oceania qualifier.
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