S. Korea all set for ‘WBSC Premier 12′ baseball opener showdown against Japan

November 6, 2015
The South Korean team poses at Incheon International Airport on Friday before departing for Sapporo, Japan, to play its opening game against Japan Sunday at the World Baseball Softball Confederation Premier 12 tournament. (Yonhap)

The South Korean team poses at Incheon International Airport on Friday before departing for Sapporo, Japan, to play its opening game against Japan Sunday at the World Baseball Softball Confederation Premier 12 tournament. (Yonhap)

By Nam Hyun-woo

The WBSC Premier 12, the latest international baseball tournament, will kick off this weekend and fill the rest of November with baseball. The Korean team, seeking a place in the quarterfinals, flew to Japan on Friday to launch its campaign.

A showdown between world No. 8 Korea and No. 1 Japan in Sapporo will open the tournament, which features the top 12 countries in the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) rankings, with its final game scheduled for Nov. 21 at the Tokyo Dome.

In the event co-hosted by Japan and Chinese Taipei, the participating countries — Cuba, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands, Canada, Puerto Rico and Italy in Group A; Japan, the U.S., Dominican Republic, Korea, Venezuela and Mexico in Group B _ will play 38 games for the honor of winning the inaugural tournament, as well as the lion’s share of the $3.8 million in prize money.

As the tournament approaches, each participating country is gearing up in a series of tune-up games.

Korea hosted No. 3 Cuba twice at Gocheok Sky Dome, the new domed stadium in Seoul, earlier this week, and split with scores of 6-0 and 1-3.

Though the Cubans were said to not be in peak condition due to jet lag, the impressive four perfect innings pitched by right-hander Rhee Dae-eun that blanked the visitors during the first game on Wednesday prompted Korea manager Kim In-sik to comment, “Our pitchers threw better than I anticipated and our hitters were also fine.

“Starter Kim Kwang-hyun and Rhee tossed some nice pitches, but Cuba was also unlucky at some points, with some hits going right at our fielders.”

Kim’s comments were proven true in the second game on Thursday, when Korea’s starter Woo Kyu-min failed to complete a full inning before being replaced after a minor injury. The Cubans scored twice and extended their lead in the seventh inning. The Koreans fully loaded the bases twice during the game, but failed to score a run both times.

Also, questions were raised about two Major League Baseball hopefuls, Lee Dae-ho and Park Byung-ho. The two sluggers’ appearance drew keen interest as they announced their intent to make themselves available to Major League Baseball, but their moves were not as ambitious as their bids.

Lee, the Japan Series MVP who is ailing from a palm injury, started the Thursday game but went 0-for-2 with a strike out; while Park, the Korea Baseball Organization’s reigning home run leader, went 1-for-3 with two strikeouts, following an 0-for-4 outing with three strikeouts the day before.

Despite their poor showings at the plate, manager Kim expressed his trust in the two sluggers. “I believe the two will do their jobs at the tournament,” Kim told Yonhap News.

“Lee still seems to care too much about his palm injury,” Kim said, “and the opposing pitchers threw tricky pitches to Park.”

Kim told Ilgan Sports, “Our primary goal is to advance to the quarterfinals. Many world baseball powerhouses will play in the tournament. We should have at least three victories to advance.”

Facing Korea, Japan will send Shohei Otani of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters to the mound to open the tournament. Otani, whose 15 wins led the Nippon Professional Baseball’s Pacific League, told the Japan Times, “The first game is extremely important,” and pledged to do his best against the Koreans.

In the first game of their two warm-ups against No. 9 Puerto Rico on Thursday, Otani allowed two runs, but the Japanese secured an 8-3 win, with their pitchers combining for 18 strikeouts.

The Koreans departed for Sapporo early Friday for the tournament opener against Japan at 7 p.m. Sunday, while the Cubans will meet Canada in their first fixture on Nov. 10 in Taichung, Taiwan. After Sunday’s game, Korea will head to Chinese Taipei to play its remaining opening round matches. The Korean team will take on the Dominican Republic on Nov. 11, Venezuela on Nov. 12, Mexico on Nov. 14 and the U.S. on Nov. 15.

The Premier 12 was created to replace the Baseball World Cup, which ended after the 2011 event in Panama, and it will take place every four years. The winner of this tournament will not be awarded with the title of world champion, as the honor will be granted the winner of the World Baseball Classic.

Four teams will exit after round-robin play and those who advance will play single elimination games until the champion is determined. The designated hitter system will be used throughout the tournament, and a 15-run mercy rule after the fifth inning and a 10-run mercy rule after the seventh inning will be applied during the group stage.

The quarterfinals are slated for Nov. 16 in Chinese Taipei and the semifinalists will head to Japan for games on Nov. 19 and 20. The final is scheduled for Nov. 21.