Korea faces tough road through Pool B
2009 runner-up will take on Dutch, Chinese Taipei and Australia in first round
TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Korea will encounter ferocious challenges in its attempt to return to the World Baseball Classic final when it plays three tournament regulars in the first round, each of whom features players with U.S. baseball experience.
Korea, which earned second place in the 2009 Classic, will face Australia, Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands in Pool B, to be held in the central Taiwanese city of Taichung from Saturday through Tuesday. The games will be held at Taiwan's state-of-the-art baseball venue, the Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium. The stadium officially opened in '06, and it can host 20,000 fans.
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Without a single current Major or Minor Leaguer on its roster, Korea will rely heavily on domestic talents and old hands from the previous tournaments. While Korean players may be largely unknown to an international audience, some of their seasoned veterans have helped the national team reach the semifinal in the 2006 Classic and win the gold medals in the '08 Beijing Olympics and the '10 Asian Games.
To advance its quest for gold, the Korean squad will need to upend opponents in the first round that are bolstered by players who are more well-known in the U.S., including former New York Yankees and Washington Nationals starter Chien-Ming Wang, former Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Hung-Chih Kuo and former All-Star slugger Andruw Jones.
Here's a look at the participants in Pool B:
Australia may be the biggest underdog in the pool, as it is the lowest-ranked among the four teams, but the club still boasts some players with Major League experience.
The Aussies have the ability to surprise, too, as they unexpectedly snatched the silver medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics under the guidance of manager Jon Deeble, who is again leading the team this year. Australia was eliminated in the first round in the two previous Classic tournaments.
As Oakland Athletics pair Grant Balfour and Travis Blackley will be missing from action, whether the Aussies can spoil the chances for the other three teams and move on will depend on how Boston Red Sox organization left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith, Detroit Tigers organization right-hander Chris Oxspring and infielder Luke Hughes, formerly of Minnesota Twins, perform.
Chinese Taipei has high hopes for reestablishing its standing as a baseball giant and has recruited several players with a wealth of Major and Minor League experience to increase its chances. The team has been suffering from uneven performances in international competitions in recent years.
Chinese Taipei was eliminated in the 2009 Classic first round without winning a game. The team also disappointed in the inaugural tournament in '06, when it only won one game in the first round.
Chinese Taipei did manage to sail through the Classic qualifying round last November, overpowering opponents with landslide victories in every game. The team's morale was further boosted by winning second place in the Asian Baseball Championship a month later.
Although Baltimore Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen, currently the biggest Taiwanese star, will not participate, manager Chang-Heng Hsieh has brought in reinforcements, and familiar former Major League faces will lead the team in its efforts to advance in the competition.
Wang and Kuo will help minimize damage against the team in the games they pitch in. On the offensive front, Houston Astros prospect Che-Hsuan Lin will lead the charge, along with Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters outfielder Dai-Kang Yang.
Two big names are missing from the Korea squad, as Cincinnati Reds outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and Los Angeles Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu have both declined to play.
Despite the absence of those Major Leaguers, skipper Joong-Il Ryu has built an imposing lineup featuring 30-year-old infielder Dae-Ho Lee of Japan's professional Orix Buffaloes and 36-year-old first baseman Seung-Yuop Lee. Both players contributed significantly to Korea winning the gold medal in the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
A member of the 2009 Classic squad, Dae-Ho Lee, enjoyed a spectacular 2012 season with Orix, batting .286 with 24 homers and leading Japan's Pacific League with 91 RBIs. When he played for Korea's Lotte Giants in '10, Lee finished the season as a leader in seven statistics, including batting average, homers and RBIs.
Seung-Yuop Lee is the Asian baseball single-season home run record holder, with 56 from his 2003 season with the domestic Samsung Lions. Known as "Lion King" to Korean fans for his stellar stint with the Samsung Lions, he helped his club secure the league title in '12 with a .307 batting average and 85 RBIs.
Another noteworthy player is 35-year-old right-hander Jae-Weong Seo, the only team member with Major League experience. He spent four years with New York Mets in the early 2000s and later played for Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Seo is now pitching for the domestic Kia Tigers.
Ranked seventh in the world, the Dutch national team has been long established as a European baseball powerhouse that is sometimes unstoppable. It delighted fans in 2011 when it defeated Cuba, 2-1, in the final to become the champion in the now discontinued World Baseball Cup.
The Netherlands won only one game in the 2006 Classic, but the club managed to advance to the second round in the tournament in '09.
With several current and former Major League stars, the Netherlands has formed an impressive lineup. Jones, Washington Nationals outfielder Roger Bernadina, Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons and Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger Wladimir Balentien will almost certainly give opposing pitchers a hard time on the mound.
The Dutch roster of pitchers, however, suffers from the absence of several talents with U.S. experience, including Jair Jurrjens, Kenley Jansen and Rick van den Hurk. Major pitching responsibilities will probably be shared by Shairon Martis of Minnesota Twins organization and right-hander Robbie Cordemans, the winning hurler in the team's 2011 victory against Cuba.
The team is managed by Hensley Meulens, who is also the current batting coach for the San Francisco Giants.
Debby Wu is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.