Sidearm pitcher for S. Korea brimming with confidence after 1st pre-WBC scrimmage

February 17, 2023

Of seven South Korean pitchers to take the mound in their first scrimmage before the World Baseball Classic (WBC) here on Thursday, sidearmer Ko Young-pyo threw the fewest pitches with 16.

He wasn’t just the most efficient one, as seven pitchers each worked an inning. Ko was also the sharpest, as he struck out two and pitched around a hit by the NC Dinos of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium in Tucson, Arizona. South Korea prevailed 8-2.

In international tournaments, pitchers who throw at an unusual arm angle like Ko can come in handy, because most hitters are not familiar with such deliveries. Ko said after Thursday’s game he was pleased with the command of all of his pitches.

That should be music to manager Lee Kang-chul’s ears, since South Korean pitchers, all of them from the KBO, are still trying to get accustomed to throwing WBC’s official ball. It has a slicker surface and lower seams than the KBO ball.

“The ball felt a little slippery when I threw a curve or a slider, but I still had good command,” Ko said. “I was pretty comfortable with my changeup. And my two-seam fastball felt a little sharper than usual.”

Ko said he was hoping for some redemption against Japan at the WBC. He started against Japan in the semifinal of the Tokyo Olympics two years ago. Though he held his ground, giving up two runs on six hits and five innings while striking out seven, South Korea lost 5-2. Ko served up a leadoff double to Tetsuto Yamada in the fifth, and he came around to score to put Japan up 2-0.

“I haven’t forgotten that double by Yamada in the semifinal,” Ko said. “I will try to throw better changeups this time.”

South Korea will play Japan for its second Pool B game on March 10 at Tokyo Dome. It will come a day after the opener against Australia, considered a must-win affair if South Korea were to secure at least the second seed out of the group and reach the quarterfinals.

“The Australia game is more important than the Japan game, because winning the first one will set the tone for the rest of the tournament,” Ko said. “No matter which game I get to pitch in, I will try to be ready.”

At the plate on Thursday, third baseman Choi Jeong looked more than ready for his WBC moments, as he blasted a solo home run and drew a walk in two trips to the plate.

Choi is the only natural third baseman on the national team. Kim Ha-seong of the San Diego Padres, who will be the starting shortstop, can also handle third base, but the optimal South Korean defensive alignment would have Kim, a Gold Glove finalist last year, and Tommy Edman of the St. Louis Cardinals, the 2021 Gold Glove winner at second, up the middle.

Choi is a capable defender at the hot corner but he is on the team mostly for his bat, which has produced 429 home runs, No. 2 all time, over 18 seasons.

“I’ve been gearing up for the WBC since late November. I am not 100 percent yet but I am getting there,” Choi said. “I feel a bit of pressure as the only third baseman. But I am going to do my best, thinking this will be my last WBC.”

It won’t be just pitchers who may have trouble with the WBC ball. Fielders also have some adjustments to make with it, and Choi acknowledged the ball felt “different” coming out of his hand when he played catch.

As for his performance at the plate, Choi said, “I tend to struggle against unfamiliar pitchers. I will try not to strike out at the tournament.”