ANAHEIM--Who knew? The juggernaut of the inaugural World Baseball Classic just might be . . . Korea?
One big blast and rock-solid pitching were all it took for Pool A champion Korea in its first taste of second round action in the WBC. Korea jumped out to a 2-0 first inning lead, and rode the strong arms of five pitchers in putting down Mexico, 2-1.
First baseman Seung Yeop Lee, who entered the game hitting .455 with three home runs and seven RBI in three tournament games, provided the offensive spark. He continued his hot streak in the first inning, as he laced a Rodrigo Lopez offering just over the right-field wall for a two-run homer to provide the scoring.
Luis Alfonso Garcia answered for Mexico in the bottom of the third with a towering solo shot to right-center, cutting Korea's margin to 2-1. But that's as close as things got.
New Dodger Jae Seo led the way for the Korean hurlers, going the first 5 1/3 innings. Seo pitched very well, facing a mere two batters more than the minimum, allowing just two hits and no walks to go along with four Ks.
Seo gave way to relievers Dae Sung Koo, Tae Hyun Chong, Jung Keun Bong, and Chan Ho Park--all but Chong being current or former big leaguers. Park pitched a scoreless ninth to record the save, but it was the submarine deliveries of Chong that gave the Mexicans fits. He struck out the only three men he faced.
Chong may be most familiar to American fans as the pitcher who gave Team USA fits in the 2000 Olympics. The U.S. beat Korea twice in Syndey, but Chong held Team USA scoreless for 10 innings and gave up two runs in 13 1/3 innings total back in 2000 against the Americans.
"I think we have to give credit to the good pitchers," Mexico manager Paquin Estrada said. "I think we have a very good offense, but that's the way baseball is. It's very difficult to prepare from one day to the next."
Against Mexican pitching, the Korean team worked the count and fouled off numerous pitches, chasing Lopez early. Lopez threw 72 pitches through three innings, and approaching the WBC-imposed limit of 80 pitches, was lifted for Elmer Dessens at the start of the fourth inning.
Despite the late 8 p.m. start and cool temperatures, a raucous crowd of 42,979 showed-more than the 33,000 seated for the day's earlier U.S. vs. Japan tilt. The crowd was only slightly partisan in Mexico's favor, with numerous large islands of Korean fans present, all of whom seemed to be banging blue Thunder Sticks. Both sides joined in and cheered loudly when Mexican legend Fernando Valenzuela threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
The tight game wasn't without its drama. Mexico got a man to third base with two outs in the ninth inning, but with both factions of fans waving flags and cheering wildly, Park fanned Geronimo Gil on a 3-2 pitch to seal the win for Korea.
Seo notched the win for Korea, with Lopez taking the loss. In their next games, Korea faces the U.S. on Monday, while Mexico plays Japan on Tuesday.