Veteran pitcher excited to lead youthful staff at World Baseball Classic
INCHEON, Jan. 31 (Yonhap) -- About a week before South Korea's first game at the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in March, left-hander Yang Hyeong-jong will turn 35, making him the oldest pitcher on a staff with a few 20-somethings getting their first taste of the big tournament.
Given his seniority, international experience and decorated domestic league career, Yang was a logical choice by manager Lee Kang-chul as captain of the national team's pitching staff.
It's a role that Yang, franchise icon for the Kia Tigers in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), is embracing wholeheartedly.
"It's an important job, and I am going to do my best. I am looking forward to getting together with the boys," Yang told reporters at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, Monday night, before departing for the Tigers' spring training site in Tucson, Arizona. "The older I get, the bigger the sense of responsibility I feel. I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel any pressure in my position. But I am going to let the results speak for themselves."
While Yang will be the leader for the staff, he will take a back seat to some younger arms on the mound. Lee has said he will give young pitchers a chance to start at the WBC and put Yang in the bullpen.
Yang doesn't see it as a demotion, saying, "When wearing the national flag on our chest, I don't think any pitcher will be so greedy that they will only want to be a starter."
If anything, South Korea will benefit from having a savvy pitcher like Yang available in relief. There will be pitch count limits in each round at the WBC, meaning starters are unlikely to go past the fifth or sixth inning. It puts a premium on stout relief pitching, and it can never hurt to have someone like Yang, who has bullpen experience and can eat up multiple innings to serve as the bridge to the closer.
With South Korea's first WBC game on March 9 against Australia in Tokyo, nearly a full month ahead of the start of the KBO season, Yang, along with other national team pitchers, had to begin his offseason throwing program early. He said he is already playing catch from about 40 meters, some two weeks ahead of his typical spring schedule.
"I am a veteran, and I don't want to make any excuse," Yang said.
With South Korea having crashed out of the first round at each of the past two WBCs, in 2013 and 2017, this year's tournament will be an opportunity for redemption.
South Korea will play all Pool B games at Tokyo Dome, and if it reaches the quarterfinals, that game will also be at the iconic stadium in the Japanese capital. The semifinals and the final will be at LoanDepot Park in Miami, home of the Miami Marlins.
The goal for Yang is simple: board a Miami-bound flight out of Tokyo, instead of a Korea-bound plane.
"Our goal is to make it to the final four," Yang said. "I am worried that more fans will turn their backs on baseball if we don't perform well this time. There's so much we have to do to bring people back to the ballparks. Hopefully, this tournament will help revive Korean baseball."
After working out with the Tigers for the first two weeks of February at Kino Sports Complex in Tucson, Yang will slide over to the national team camp, also in the same complex.
"Our training sites right next to each other. And if I have some extra time after the end of national team practices, I will go train with my Tigers teammates," Yang said. "Both the national team and the Tigers are important to me."
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