Nat’l baseball manager wary of Australia after scouting trip to Sydney

January 9, 2023

Following a scouting trip to Sydney for the upcoming World Baseball Classic (WBC), Lee Kang-chul, manager of the South Korean national baseball team, said Monday he anticipated a tightly-contested game against Australia at the March tournament.

Lee and a few members of his staff arrived back home on Monday after spending the weekend taking in Australian Baseball League (ABL) games. They got an early look at players that they thought would make the Australian team for the WBC.

South Korea’s first Pool B game is against Australia on March 9 in Tokyo. South Korea will also face Japan, China and the Czech Republic in Pool B. The top two countries after round robin action will advance to the quarterfinals.

Lee left for Australia Thursday, but games scheduled for Friday were rained out. Lee ended up watching four games — two sets of doubleheaders — on Saturday and Sunday, between the Melbourne Aces and the Sydney Blue Sox.

Lee said the Aces sent out four infielders that he thinks will represent Australia at the WBC.

Though the ABL is admittedly considered a notch or two below the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), Lee said the cream of the ABL crop can still be competitive at international events.

“I got the impression that the four players we focused on could be high-end players in our league,” Lee told reporters at Incheon International Airport. “They tended to play an Asian style of baseball, putting down bunts and stealing bases.”

Japan is considered the favorite to win the group, while China and the Czechs are seen as also-rans. This leaves South Korea and Australia to battle for the one remaining ticket to the quarterfinals, and Lee has long pointed to the opener against Australia a must-win game for his team.

Beat Australia to start the tournament, and South Korea could still finish second even if it falls to Japan, provided that it can beat China and the Czech Republic and Australia also loses to Japan, as expected.

But a loss to Australia at the start will mean South Korea will have to win its all remaining games for a shot at reaching the final eight. That will be a tough task, considering the stacked Japanese squad featuring Shohei Ohtani and Yu Darvish, among other major league players.

Lee’s focus on Australia is so singular that he selected pitchers with sharp breaking balls and splitters because he felt Australian hitters will be vulnerable against those pitches. Lee previously said he wasn’t worried about South Korea’s left-heavy lineup because Australia will likely have more right-handed pitchers than southpaws.

And one such right-hander could be former KBO pitcher Warwick Saupold, who pitched to a 4.16 ERA and a 22-24 record over 59 starts in 2019 and 2020 for the Hanwha Eagles.

“I had a chance to watch Saupold pitch on TV. And I heard he will likely pitch against us,” Lee said of the Perth Heat pitcher who started on Sunday. “We’ll keep a close eye on him. And the ABL also has a few other pitchers who can throw good fastballs. Australia will send their best pitchers against us, and so we have to keep checking.”

As for Australian hitters, Lee said he felt they could handle fastballs but looked vulnerable against slow breaking balls.

“The bottom line is we have to hit and score some runs,” Lee said. “We think the game will be decided by two or three runs, and we’ve got to score more than three runs.”

If South Korea reaches the quarterfinals, it will face either the top seed or the No. 2 seed from Pool A. Cuba and Chinese Taipei are expected to take those spots, but Lee said he hasn’t put any thought into games beyond the preliminary round.

On the big showdown against Japan, Lee said, “They have some big-name players but not all of them are going to play against us.”

“We’ll try to beat Australia first and then try to have a good match against Japan,” Lee added. “We’re going to try to keep our composure.”

Other members of Lee’s staff will travel to Melbourne on Wednesday to watch more ABL games this week.