By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Jan. 5 (Yonhap) -- The 2022 season was a tale of two halves for Doosan Bears right-hander Gwak Been. And the 23-year-old is hoping he can maintain his second-half self when he makes his World Baseball Classic (WBC) debut in March.
Gwak was one of 15 pitchers named to the South Korean team for the big tournament Wednesday. He was rated as the second-hardest South Korean starter in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) last season, with an average fastball velocity of 147.6 kilometers per hour (91.7 miles per hour), but the number would have been higher if he'd pitched the entire season the way he did in the second half.
Gwak was only 3-7 with an underwhelming 4.43 ERA in his first 16 starts of the season. He also walked 45 batters in 81 1/3 innings, nearly five per nine innings.
But after lowering his arm angle, down to where he had it in high school, Gwak became far more effective. Over his last 11 starts, Gwak pitched to a 2.98 ERA and issued just 15 walks in 66 1/3 innings, about two per nine innings. His velocity ticked up, too, as he sat around 150 kph and touched 156 kph.
That midseason turnaround made Gwak an easy choice for the WBC team. The KBO had sent the official WBC ball, by a different manufacturer than the ball in the South Korean league, to pitchers who were likely to make the WBC team. Gwak was one of them.
However, the pitcher himself said Wednesday he didn't want to get ahead of himself until the announcement.
"I decided I would only believe it the moment I saw my name on the list. People congratulated me even before the team list came out, but I told them, 'I don't know if I am on the team yet,'" Gwak said. "And to have a chance to represent the country against the best players in the world is an honor. I want to help the team the best I can."
Gwak, who made his KBO debut in 2018, said he didn't have much trust in himself in early years as a pro but he developed more confidence in 2022 as he received consistent opportunities to start.
As for his new arm angle, Gwak said: "I am now able to control my pitches better without compromising velocity. And that has given me even more confidence."
A fellow 23-year-old hurler on the national team, Jung Woo-young of the LG Twins, is another confident pitcher. A sidearmer who throws a hard sinker, Jung has been one of the KBO's best setup men since his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2019. He has a career 2.94 ERA over 263 1/3 innings and is tied for the KBO lead over the past four years with 98 holds, including a league-best 35 holds in 2022.
"I am ready to sacrifice myself for the country. I think I can pitch in every game," Jung said Wednesday after learning of his selection. "I've long dreamed of pitching for the country. I desperately wanted to make this team, and I think it'll be a good opportunity for me to make an impression on international scouts."
South Korea is in Pool B with Japan, Australia, China and the Czech Republic. The top two teams after round robin action will advance to the quarterfinals. Pool B teams will play all of their preliminary games and quarterfinals game at Tokyo Dome. The semifinals and the championship final will be played at LoanDepot Park in Miami, home of the Miami Marlins.
Japan, world No. 1 stacked with major league talent, will be favored to win Pool B and possibly the entire tournament. Jung said he was most looking forward to the Japan showdown.
"I think it will be an intense game, and I personally think we should feel confident," Jung said. "We'll go up against hitters that haven't seen Korean pitchers, and so I think that will work to our advantage. And I can't wait to pitch to top-class hitters."
Gwak and Jung are among the youngsters on the pitching staff led by a pair of veteran left-handers, Kim Kwang-hyun of the SSG Landers and Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers. Both have won MVP awards and multiple Korean Series titles in the KBO, and have pitched in the majors. At 34, they will also likely play in their final WBC.
Gwak said he grew up rooting for Kim and Yang, drawing inspiration from the southpaws, like many others in his generation.
"It's an incredible honor to be on the national team with them, and I will try to pick their brains," Gwak said. "I hope I can become a role model for the future generation, just like Kim Kwang-hyun and Yang Hyeon-jong have been for us."
Jung said he was inspired by South Korea's run to the round of 16 at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar last month. He has friends on the team, including his namesake forward/midfielder in Jeong Woo-yeong.
"I grew envious. Everyone in the country fell in love with football then," Jung said. "I hope we can do well at the WBC and make people love baseball, too."
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