|The Korean national baseball team pose for a photo at Gimpo International Airport in western Seoul on Tuesday, before departing for Tokyo for the inaugural Asian Professional Baseball Championship. [YONHAP]|
Thursday’s game will be Sun’s debut as manager and the players’ first time in the Tokyo Dome. Having coached the national team under former manager Kim In-sik, Sun is rated highly for his ability to manage pitching in short term tournaments.
The inaugural tournament is played between the three teams - Korea, Japan and Chinese Taipei - with only professional players under 24 years of age and players with less than three years of experience in professional leagues eligible to compete. In order to continue developing players before a gold medal-bid at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Korea gave up all three of its wild cards - players that do not meet the age and experience requirements - so younger players can gain experience.
“The players worked really hard in a short period of time before the tournament,” Sun said. “Since this is the first game for myself [as a manager] and for a lot of the younger players as a member of the national team, we want to play good games.”
Just like any other international tournaments, the Korean national baseball team is likely to rely on the speed of its players, with left-hand batters Lee Jung-hoo of the Nexen Heroes, Park Min-woo of the NC Dinos and Koo Ja-wook of the Samsung Lions as leading batters.
Korea’s first game against Japan on Thursday is likely to be the biggest match of the tournament as the two baseball-crazy nations continue their historic rivalry.
“It’ll all come down to two to three runs [against Japan],” Sun said. “It will be an important factor as to how much our batters will adjust to the Japanese pitchers. And our pitchers will have to give out the least number of runs.”
It is likely for Japan to have Shota Imanaga as starting pitcher in either the first or the final game. This season, Imagana picked up 11 wins and 7 losses with a 2.98 ERA.
“Since the Japanese pitchers are really good, I don’t think we can score more than three runs,” Sun said. “Looking at our lineup, I don’t think we can expect a lot of home runs. We need to look for chances after sending out the fast players.”
In the three friendly matches in preparation for the event the team used a “zigzag” lineup, assigning left and right handed batters respectively. Sun assigned Lee, Park and Koo as first, third and fifth batters. The three’s performance will be crucial for the team’s performance, as they are the ones with the fastest feet.
KBO rookie of the year Lee had three hits during the first friendly game against the Nexen Heroes on Nov. 8, hitting multiple times in all three games. Lee is likely to be the team’s first batter. Though Lee only stole 12 bases this season, he had an impressive 75 percent success rate.
“The Japanese pitchers make great pitches, but we’re both humans,” Lee said. “There can’t be a ball where I can’t hit.”
Park has shown consistency throughout his six-year-long career with a 0.324 batting average. This season, Park had a 0.363 batting average, making him the most likely batter to play as the national team’s table setter.
Koo, who hit 21 home runs this season, the second highest among national team members, is determined to perform in any situation. Koo only had ten stolen bases this season, but has shown great sense in base running. Koo was ranked first in stolen bases, at six, at the 2014 U-23 Baseball World Cup.
During a second friendly game against the Heroes on Friday, the Korean national team stole four bases with a 100 percent success rate. At times, they even attempted a double steal.
“We’ll need to focus on adjusting to Tokyo Dome,” Sun said.
Following the first game, Korea will play against Chinese Taipei on Friday. The team will have to win at least one of the two games to play in the final on Sunday.
BY KIM WON, BAE YOUNG-EUN [email@example.com]