S. Korea to host Cuba twice ahead of int’l baseball tourney

November 3, 2015
South Korea's Park Byung-ho takes batting practice at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on Nov. 3, 2015, ahead of a game against Cuba. (Yonhap)

South Korea’s Park Byung-ho takes batting practice at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on Nov. 3, 2015, ahead of a game against Cuba. (Yonhap)

SEOUL (Yonhap) — In preparations for an upcoming international baseball tournament, South Korea will host Cuba in two exhibition games at a brand new dome this week.

In what has been titled “Seoul Super Series,” South Korea will face Cuba on Wednesday at 6:20 p.m. and Thursday at 6:30 p.m., with both games at Gocheok Sky Dome in western Seoul.

South Korea will start SK Wyverns left-hander Kim Kwang-hyun on Wednesday, and LG Twins right-hander Woo Kyu-min on Thursday.

It will be the first meeting between the countries since the gold medal game of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when South Korea prevailed 3-2, with reliever Chong Tae-hyon getting Yulieski Gourriel ground into a game-ending double play.

Chong and Gourriel are back on their respective teams this week, as the countries are getting ready for the inaugural Premier 12, which will kick off on Sunday in Sapporo, Japan.

South Korea is paired with Japan, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela and the United States in Group B. Cuba has drawn Canada, Chinese Taipei, Italy, the Netherlands and Puerto Rico in Group A.

After playing Cuba, South Korea will depart for Japan on Friday.

Neither team will feature its Major League Baseball stars, such as Texas Rangers outfielder Choo Shin-soo for South Korea and Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu for Cuba. Major League Baseball (MLB) has agreed to make only players not on 40-man rosters available for the event, which is being organized by the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC).

For South Korea at least, there are a handful of stars hoping to make it to the ultimate stage next year.

On Monday, Nexen Heroes’ first baseman Park Byung-ho took his first step toward the big leagues, as the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) asked its MLB counterpart to post the slugger in a silent auction. Park, who has hit 52 and 53 home runs the past two seasons, is hoping to become just the second South Korean position player to go from the KBO to MLB via posting.

A day later, Lee Dae-ho, the reigning Japan Series MVP for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, announced his intent to pursue a major league career. Lee, a 30-homer slugger in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) has declared free agency and won’t have to go through the bidding process like Park.

There are two other national team members from the KBO who have earlier expressed desire to be posted this offseason: outfielder Son Ah-seop and infielder Hwang Jae-gyun, both of the Lotte Giants.

Since the KBO rule prevents clubs from posting more than one player at a time, the Giants have decided to make Son available first.

Doosan Bears’ outfielder Kim Hyun-soo is a pending free agent, and he has drawn interest from big league scouts this year. Before the season, Kim pledged to his fans that he’d re-sign with the Bears if the club won the Korean Series this year. The Bears did just that last Saturday, knocking out the Samsung Lions in five games, and Kim has yet to publicly comment on his future plans.

South Korean manager Kim In-sik hasn’t been able to run full practices or play intrasquad games, with 11 players on the 28-man roster competing in the Korean Series for the Bears and the Lions.

The manager plans to use multiple pitchers for each game to set his rotation and bullpen for the tournament.

On offense, Park Byung-ho should bat in the heart of the order. Manager Kim said Lee Dae-ho is dealing with a hand injury suffered in Game 5 of the Japan Series last Tuesday and may not be available for Wednesday’s game.

“The team trainer said if Lee can get some treatment today and rest tomorrow, he could be ready to play on Thursday,” Kim added. “We’ll have to wait and see. Lee said he’s going to start swinging the bat a little bit.”

Lee took a pitch to the palm and was lifted for a pinch runner in the ninth inning of the clinching fifth game.

Park, whose Heroes were eliminated from the KBO postseason on Oct. 14, said he will use the two upcoming games to try to get back into game shape.

“I’ve never played against Cuba before, but I know just how strong Cuba has been in baseball,” Park said. “We’re trying to get ready for Premier 12 but we also hope to learn from Cuba.”

In addition to Gourriel, Cuba will have other carryovers from the 2008 Olympics, including outfielder Alfredo Despaigne and pitcher Yonder Martinez.

Seoul Metropolitan Government, which designed and built the dome, has planned an opening ceremony for the stadium prior to the game. Former major leaguer Park Chan-ho will be among current and former athletes to take part in the occasion.