by Jim McLauchlin
March 14, 2006
ANAHEIM–No, seriously–who knew?
The heavyweight champion of the inaugural World Baseball Classic so far isn’t the juggernaut United States, the mighty Dominican Republic, or even the mysterious Cuba. It’s Korea.
Korea cruised through the first round of play with a 3-0 record, and kicked off Round Two by nudging past Mexico 2-1 Sunday night to run its record to 4-0. Surely the miraculous streak would end against the U.S. and its all-star roster, right?
Wrong. Meet the 5-0 Team Korea. Powered by first baseman Seung Yeop Lee–who is quickly making a huge name for himself in the tournament–and Dodgers slugger Hee Seop Choi, Korea bruised the U.S. to 7-3 beat. Korea is now in the driver’s seat with a 2-0 record in Round Two and a virtual certainty to make the semifinals in San Diego starting Saturday.
Korea got the party started early, as U.S. starting pitcher Dontrelle Willis had his second straight shaky outing. Willis walked leadoff man Jong Beom Lee on five pitches, three of which were in the dirt. Fortunately for Willis, Lee was erased on a double play with the next batter, because first baseman Seung Yeop Lee continued his massive hot streak with a solo home run on the first pitch he saw from Willis. It was Lee’s fifth home run of the tournament.
Tae Kyn Kim then walked, advanced to third on a single by Ji Man Song, and scored on an RBI single from Bum Ho Lee.
Ken Griffey Jr. hit a towering fly in the third inning that just cleared the right-field fence for a solo home run, but the U.S. got no closer than 2-1. Korea squirted across a run in the bottom of the third, then poured it on in the fourth and never looked back.
“Right now, I’m not playing good baseball,” Willis said. “I’m a man, and I can admit that. But I’m still excited to be here, and I’m hoping we advance, because that’ll give me another start.”
After Willis was chased in three innings, U.S. reliever Dan Wheeler started the fourth with two quick outs before yielding a ground-rule double to Min Jae Kim. With two out and first base open, Buck Martinez chose to give Seung Yeop Lee four wide, intentionally walking him. Not that it mattered. Choi, the Dodgers first baseman who was off to a slow start in the tournament, pinch-hit and lofted a three-run homer high into the night sky and just inside the right-field foul pole. Korea padded its lead to 6-1.
Korea tacked on an additional insurance run in the sixth, and the U.S. got two back in the ninth, but matters were largely academic. Korea never trailed, and was in control for the entire game.
U.S. manager Buck Martinez was prophetic as regards Seung Yeop Lee before the game. “We know he has the ability to do things dramatically at the plate,” Martinez said. “He’s got a powerful swing, and he’s already obviously had an interesting tournament.”
Things got more interesting for Lee, at the U.S.’s expense, and Martinez heaped on the praise after the game. “We were trying to get the ball out away from him, but it just ran back across the middle of the plate,” Martinez said. “We know he has good power. Lee has been red-hot in this tournament.”
U.S. hopes are still high that it will advance to the four-team final in San Diego, and with a 1-1 record, the Americans are currently ahead of both Japan and Mexico in the four-team pool. The U.S. will anxiously await the results of Tuesday’s Mexico-Japan game to see which team will join them at 1-1.
Perhaps the only bright spot for the U.S. in the Korea game was Griffey, who atoned for a ninth-inning strikeout against Japan on Sunday and continued his otherwise torrid pace. He’s hitting .588 for the tournament with 10 RBIs, tying Seung Yeop Lee for the Classic lead. Griffey went 3-for-4, and in addition, hit a towering fly to the warning track in center field in the first inning that narrowly missed going out for a home run.
But the story of the tournament remains Seung Yeop Lee, who is hitting .471-5-10 after going 2-for-3 Monday.
“There’s no reason to think that he might not be a guy that can play in the major leagues,” Martinez said of the Japan League star, who played two years for the Chiba Lotte Marines and signed this offseason with Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants. “You see his discipline at the plate, his plate coverage, and you see the power he has. Everybody understands that this is a guy that is going to attract a lot of attention.”
Starter Min Han Son notched the win for Korea, going thee innings while giving up only one run. Willis gave up three runs in his three innings and was saddled with the loss.
Korea’s next matchup is against rival Japan on Wednesday. Korea previously beat Japan, 3-2, in the third game for both teams. The U.S. gets a couple days rest before taking on Mexico on Thursday. The U.S. previously blanked Mexico 2-0 in Round One.