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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Korea Has The Best Baseball Team in The World - MLB.com

03/16/2006 4:38 AM ET

Unbeaten Korea headed to semifinals
Koreans beat rival Japan in a Classic matchup

By Mychael Urban / MLB.com

ANAHEIM -- Before Wednesday night's high-stakes matchup between Korea and Japan in Round 2 of the World Baseball Classic, a techno version of Bryan Adams' "Heaven" blared through the speakers.

After getting a clutch two-run double in the eighth inning from Jong Beom Lee and an equally clutch relief performance from righty Seung Hwan Oh on the way to a 2-1 victory in a beautifully pitched game Wednesday night at Angel Stadium, Korea's unbeaten (6-0) squad celebrated as if it had indeed moved on to a glorious baseball afterlife.

"Unbelievable," Lee said softly as he walked into a packed postgame press conference.

Believe it. Korea is the best team in the world right now.

And as an added bonus, none of its players will be going into their country's military after the tournament ends. Prior to the start of the second round, the Korean government announced that it would waive for its players the mandatory three-year stint in the armed forces -- imposed on every Korean male -- if the team reached the semifinals in San Diego.

"We gave everything we had," said Japanese manager Sadaharu Oh. "We learned that our opponents' desire was higher than ours."

That desire paid off in front of a noisy, mostly pro-Korea crowd of 39,679, many of them incessantly banging blue versions of the omnipresent ThunderStixx that provided the cacophonous accompaniment to the 2002 Angels' World Series run here.

"I was aware of the fact that a lot of Korean-Americans lived in this area, but I didn't know there were that many," Lee said. "I was very touched by their cheering."

Despite being spurred on by its legions of flag-waving fans, the surprise team of the tournament was as quiet offensively as its supporters were loud until a daring bit of baserunning paid off in the top of the eighth inning.

After drawing a one-out walk from lefty reliever Toshiya Suguichi, Min Jae Kim challenged center fielder Tatsuhiko Kinjoh's arm on a single up the middle by Byung Kyu Lee and barely won, evading the tag at third base despite being beaten there by the throw. With runners at second and third, Japan brought in righty Kyuji Fujikawa to face Jong Beom Lee, who scored both runners with a rocket to the wall in left-center field.

"I thought that this was my last chance," Jong Beom Lee said. "Perhaps God gave me this last chance to test me."

Japan's Tsuyoshi Nishioka added to the drama by lining a leadoff homer to left off lefty reliever Dae Sung Koo in the bottom of the ninth, but Seung Hwan Oh took over with one out and the tying run on first base and nailed down the biggest save of his life with a pair of swinging strikeouts.

Even Team USA manager Buck Martinez, whose team needed a win by Korea to remain in semifinal contention, got caught up in the excitement.

"I've never been so nervous watching a baseball game that I wasn't [involved] in," he said. "Both teams showed tremendous heart."

Heart sure helps, but that wasn't what gave Korea its second pool championship of the tournament.

"We struggled to score runs against some very good pitching," Sadaharu Oh said.

Korean starter Chan Ho Park was backed by four innings of two-hit work from four relievers, and in a tribute to the mastery of the team's moundsmen, someone planted a Korean flag squarely atop the pitchers' rubber as the players mobbed each other in the infield following the final out.

"Our pitchers worked very hard and gave 110 percent," said Team Korea manager In Sik Kim, whose staff has a Classic-best 1.33 ERA overall. "They did their very best, and that's why we got where we are."

Park, making his first start of the tournament for Korea after having saved three of his team's first five victories, got some help early from right fielder Jin Young Lee. With two out in the second inning, Japan's Akinori Iwamura tried to score from second base on a single by Tomoya Satozaki but was gunned down by a strong one-hop throw complemented by a textbook sweep tag from catcher In Sung Cho.

Visibly fired up, Park cruised through the next three innings, erasing Japan's only baserunner in that span with a double-play grounder to end the fourth. He was perfect in the fifth and left the game with a line of four hits without a walk and three strikeouts on 66 pitches.

Japanese starter Shunsuke Watanabe was every bit as efficient as Park, allowing one hit and a two walks while rolling through his six innings of work on 73 pitches. Both pitchers induced a steady stream of ground balls, with only three of the first 30 outs of the game coming on fly balls to the outfield -- two by Japan.

"It felt like the playoffs," Watanabe said of the atmosphere.

Lefty Byung Doo Jun took over for Park and issued a leadoff walk in the bottom of the sixth. After a sacrifice bunt by Ichiro Suzuki, righty Byung-Hyun Kim was summoned from Korea's bullpen to get out of the inning. He did, and went on to work a perfect bottom of the seventh.

Korea got a runner into scoring position of its own in the top of the seventh on a leadoff walk and a sacrifice bunt, but Suguichi, who had taken over for Watanabe to open the inning, quickly quelled the mini-jam with a grounder and a foul pop.

That's about when things took a turn toward the dramatic.

After Jong Beom Lee's heroics, Byung-Hyun Kim got the first out of the bottom of the eighth and was relieved by lefty Koo, who got out of the inning but was replaced after Nishioka's blast and a one-out single by Nobuhiko Matsanuka.

As Seung Hwan Oh ran in from the bullpen, the crowd was on its feet. Minutes later, it was jumping for joy.

First went down pinch-hitter Takahiro Arai. Then went down Hitoshi Tamura, and with him went down the pre-Classic notion that Japan had the best team in the Eastern Hemisphere.

Japan, which also lost to Korea in the first round, fell to 1-2 in pool play here and 3-3 overall. Korea is the only undefeated team in the tournament, but In Sik Kim and Jong Beom Lee both waved off the opportunity to gloat, noting that a couple of big wins doesn't suddenly vault Korean baseball to the top of the Eastern food chain.

Jong Beom Lee did, however, admit to getting a certain amount of satisfaction in beating his country's rivals on the grandest global stage the game has ever presented.

"It made me proud to be Korean, but more important, we beat Japan," he offered. "It was sweet revenge."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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