By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Jan. 16 (Yonhap) -- Less than two months before the biggest international baseball tournament of the year, South Korean national team manager Lee Kang-chul on Monday called on his players to leave everything on the field and have no regrets at the end.
Lee gathered 19 of his 30 players at a Seoul hotel for their first orientation for the World Baseball Classic (WBC), with South Korea scheduled to take on Australia for the first Pool B game on March 9 at Tokyo Dome.
At a press conference accompanied by three players, Lee said he will try to put each player in the best position to succeed.
"I will prepare different roles for different players, and the one thing I stressed today was that I expect them to fulfill their responsibilities," Lee said. "I also told them they should get themselves into the best physical shape possible so that they can play to the best of their abilities and leave the tournament without any regrets."
This is the first WBC since 2017. South Korea finished third at the inaugural event in 2006 and lost to Japan in extra innings in the championship final three years later. The country has fallen on hard times since, however, crashing out of the opening rounds in both 2013 and 2017. Throw in a disappointing fourth-place finish at the six-nation tournament at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, and South Korean baseball is a long way from its glory days.
"People say we are in a tough spot, but this team will try to use the WBC as an opportunity to turn things around," Lee said. "We have a good balance of veterans and young players. We'll try to play as many games as possible."
Lee's squad features 27 stars from the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) joined by three major league players in Kim Ha-seong of the San Diego Padres, Choi Ji-man of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Tommy Edman of the St. Louis Cardinals, who was born to an American mother and is thus eligible under WBC's loose set of regulations.
"We will try to win every game we play," said Kim, the only one of the trio who attended the orientation.
Doosan Bears catcher Yang Eui-ji, no stranger to international events at age 35, said he will try to redeem himself after a string of poor international performances.
"I've struggled in recent tournaments, and I am going into this WBC thinking it will be my last one," said Yang, a perennial MVP candidate in the KBO. "There were times at past tournaments when I wasn't physically ready. This time, I will let the results speak for themselves."
Lee said he will consider putting Yang, a middle-of-the-lineup force, down in the batting order to lessen Yang's offensive burden.
"We have a lot of young pitchers, and Yang Eui-ji will have to be the leader for them," the manager said. "And if he'd rather bat down in the lineup, then we'll accommodate that. His primary job will be to lead the way for our young pitchers."
LG Twins closer Go Woo-suk said he will try to put a disappointing run at the Tokyo Olympics behind him.
"Back at the Olympics, I just wasn't good enough," said Go, who led the KBO with 42 saves in 2022. "I've tried to push myself harder after that competition. If my effort hasn't been in vain, then I should have a better performance this time."
After Australia, South Korea will take on Japan, the Czech Republic and China. The top two teams after round robin action will advance to the quarterfinals.
Lee reiterated the importance of winning the first game against Australia and added he was looking forward to mounting a challenge against Japan, world No. 1 and one of the biggest tournament favorites.
"For the first game, we will pull out all the stops to win," Lee said. "As for Japan, they will have some household names, but not every one of them will play against us. They're such a great team, but I think we can make it an interesting game."
While China and the Czech Republic are seen as major underdogs in Pool B, Lee said his team will not take anyone lightly.
"In a short tournament like this, anything can happen on any given day," Lee said. "We're keeping a close eye on those two countries, too. We don't see them as easy opponents."
Lee said the players elected veteran Twins outfielder Kim Hyun-soo as captain. Kim was also captain at the Tokyo Olympics.
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