Friday, March 17, 2006

Japan vs. Korea III: What? Again?

Before I get into the preview of this exciting matchup, I think I should throw a suggestion out there for the WBC organizing committe for the next go 'round. Why not criss cross the #1 and #2 teams from the two brackets to avoid having a third matchup between teams in the tournament? Wouldn't a Dominican Republic vs. Japan matchup be appealing? A Korea vs. Cuba affair would be much more interesting. The Asian rivalry is a good one, but maybe it's too much of a good thing.

Let's start with a look at Team Korea. 6 and 0 Korea is the only undefeated team in the World Baseball Classic. A mix of strong pitching from top to bottom, and timely power have paved the way for a magical run to the Finals. The Koreans successfully recruited every quality player in their national stable to compete in this event and they've clearly been out to prove something to the world. Although the Republic of South Korea has a century's old baseball tradition and has fielded a number of good Major League players, they are often overshadowed by their Japanese rivals.

The US and Japan are also favorite targets of the Korean media, which seems to take almost obsessive pleasure in highlighting both nations' failures. Victories over both countries has provided the rabid Korean media with plenty of fodder for their neurotic angle on the meaning of this event (Ichiro's "shame" and "despair"). One particularly odd article from the writers at Chosunilbo takes great pleasure in quoting Americans who express their idolization of Team Korea in stark contrast to the utter disgust they feel for Team USA. Take these comments for example:

At least one Netizen also paid tribute to the Korean team’s appearance saying, “Koreans are so handsome and cool,” and,“The US team is such a loser compared to Korea. They are overestimated,” wrote one disgruntled fan.

Lest these "journalists" forget, the US is home to over 1 million Koreans, of which 20% in the working age population own their own businesses. Los Angeles is home to around 250,000 of the Koreans in America, and NY/NJ is home to 170,000. The Korean population of the United States has seen a remarkable boom over the last 25 years and the US by all accounts has been a good place for Korean immigrants to pursue the American Dream. It's not to say that there hasn't been discrimination, but ignoring the positive aspects of the Korean-American experience also fuels the division that some would like to exploit. Japan's Korean community has seen harsh and cruel treatment over the years, to be sure, but at a stage when Korean people are finally breaking through the traditional fog of ignorance in Japan, these reports don't help. Plus, it's just baseball. Give it a rest.

At any rate, Korea proved to be superior to the US in the WBC and has earned some right to glow in the moment. Victories over Japan (twice), the US, and Mexico have brought them to the Final Four. Let's look at the key players for Team Korea.

When we talk about hitting, it starts with "The Lion King", Lee Seung Yeop. I've written about him already here at Canyon of Heroes, but he's worth keeping an eye on for any fan of baseball. The Asian single season home run champion(56), and Japan League champion(Lotte 2005) is now ready to add WBC champion to his resume before returning to Japan to play for the legendary Tokyo Yomiuri Giants this year. He sports a whopping 1.630 OPS through 6 games with 5 home runs and 10 RBIs. He provided the game winning hit in the Japan vs. Korea I, and got the team on the board quickly against the US in their 7-3 victory.

The "Korean Ichiro", Lee Jong Beom has patrolled center field for the Koreans and posted a 1.167 OPS, including a .500 OBP. His ability to run hasn't bagged him a stolen base yet, but it's mainly because he's legged out 5 doubles in 6 games. He will play for the Kia Tigers in the Korean Professional Baseball League this season, but also has Japanese League experience with the Nagoya Chunichi Dragons.

Finally, we should look at the Los Angeles Dodgers own Choi Hee Seop. He's a big slugger with talent and name recognition. Choi has played on several Major League teams, but has not secured a spot as an everyday player really. His power is obvious, and he hit a huge 3-run shot against the US to put the game away in the middle innings. He should get the nod at DH. Click the graphic below to see their individual numbers through 6 games:

The numbers can be deceiving, however. The Koreans have put together nice numbers overall, but against Japan they are batting .131 on 8 for 61 hitting. They've drawn 5 walks to 12 strikeouts, and have only 2 extra base hits. It's timely hitting that has helped them pull out two one run games. Timely hitting, zero errors, and great pitching. Let's look at their pitchers.

Probable starter Seo Jae Wong was foolishly let go by the New York Mets. He'll suit up for the Dodgers this season and has shown excellent form so far in keeping runners off the bases. In his 2 starts, Seo has allowed 4 hits and 2 walks, while posting a 1.00 ERA. So far he has pitched against Taipei and Mexico, so Team Japan will provide him with his toughest task to date.

Korean set up man, Koo Dae Sung played professionally for the New York Mets in 2005, where he posted an impressive rookie season. The Yankees were in line to sign Koo, but he suddenly changed his mind at the last moment and headed to Queens. The lefty won a Quadruple Crown (wins, saves, ERA and winning percentage) with a record of 18-3 with 24 saves and a 1.88 ERA in 55 games for his Hanwha Eagles in 1996 and won the league MVP. He also played professionally in Japan for 4 seasons with the now defunct Orix BlueWave. Koo is the setup man for our next featured pitcher, Chan Ho Park.

Park has shown his versatility for the Korean team by closing out 3 ballgames and earning the win in the last start against Japan. In his 10 innings of work he hasn't given up a run, and has held batters to a .226 average, including a 1-2-3 inning to get the save against Team Japan in Japan vs. Korea I. Park has pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers, and San Diego Padres, where he will start the 2006 season. He has posted a nice 12 year career in the US, and is the grandaddy of the Korean pitching staff in terms of MLB service. See the Korean pitching stats by clicking the graphic below:
Let's hear it for Team Japan. At 3-3, Japan comes into the semi-final matchup playing better baseball than their record would indicate. A controversial umpire's decision against the US may have cost them a win and a chance to move on, but the US did everything in their power to see that Team Japan received justice in the end by bowing out meekly to Korea and Mexico. Japan is coming off a loss to Korea in the final game of the Second Round, and is looking to break the trend by snapping a 2-game losing streak to their blue-clad regional rivals. In the end, this is the only game of the 3 they've played against each other in the WBC that will count for anything. The previous two games were close one run affairs, that had no bearing on the outcome of the seedings. Win and go to the Final, lose and go home disappointed.

I've previewed Team Japan a bit in the past, but I'll pick out 3 hitters and pitchers that I think will make or break this game for Japan. First the hitters.

Ichiro Suzuki has been sluggish and moody during the competition so far. Nothing can tarnish his Hall of Fame reputation, but Japanese fans would certainly like to see him play his best on this huge stage and carry the team on his back. Of course, we all know that Ichiro has been AL Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season, and holds the Major League record for most hits in a season at 262. Astounding. To this point in the WBC, he has posted a decent .292 average and is on base at a .393 clip. His presence in RF is imposing, and his speed on the bases is enough to keep pitchers edgy. So far, we haven't seen the best of Ichiro, and he knows it. Look for a big game against Korea. I almost GUARANTEE it.

Nobuhiko Matsunaka came into the WBC looking to test himself against the world's best pitching. He was the 2004 Pacific League MVP and Triple Crown winner for Manager Oh's Fukuoka Hawks .The cleanup man for Team Japan is a burly guy with a razor like focus at the plate. He looks serious. He's banged out 9 hits, including 3 doubles, for Nippon and has a ridiculous .519 OBP. Matsunaka has good power and is always a threat to go yard. That having been said, light-hitting Tsuyoshi Nishioka has out homered his teammate 2-0.

The aforementioned Nishioka, relies on his speed and glove to make an impact. In 2005, at the age of 21, Nishioka played his first full season in the Japan League. He showed a bright future by making his hits count with 37 extra base hits (22 doubles, 11 triples, and 4 home runs) for Bobby V's Japan champion Lotte Marines. Nishioka also stole 41 bases and played a stellar 2B and SS, committing only 5 errors in 120 games. The strange thing about his performance in the WBC has been his power(2 homers) and his bad glove (3 errors in 6 games). He was also the runner called out at home for leaving early on a sacrifice fly against the US in the eighth. By now you know that story. One note on Nishioka: For Lotte he only hit .268 with a .320 OBP last year. In the WBC he has posted a whopping .364 average with a .464 OBP. Which is the real Nishioka? Larger sample size says it's the Lotte Nishioka, not the Team Japan.

The two games against Korea have been decided by one run, both on let inning rallies against the bullpen. Let's look at who Japan will throw at Korea to get themselves over the hump.

Koji Uehara has been my personal whipping boy for two years now. I don't like the Yomiuri Giants so much, and I think it has affected my perception of this young pitcher. "Kyojin" as they are called here in Japan have a Yankee-like reputation, and made the late 60's and 70's there own personal era of baseball in Japan. Ailing former player and manager, Shigeo Nagashima, would ordinarily skipper this national team, but his health prevents it. Sadaharu Oh has stepped in to take the reigns. Both men powered the great Kyojin machine that won 9 consecutive Japan League championships in the mid-60s and early 70's. Nagashima is considered to be the soul of Japanese baseball. In recent years, the Giants have lived on their reputation and their players have been more bark than bite. Uehara seems to be rounding into a fine top line starter that will undoubtedly test the Major League waters if he can pry himself out of Japan via the posting system. Easier said than done.

In this tournament he has showed some grit in winning 2 games, despite giving up 14 hits in only 10 innings pitched. In the first matchup against atrocious China, Uehara wasn't sharp and allowed a team of hacks 7 hits, including a home run by catcher Wang Wei. He then turned around and posted an identical result against the US, with 7 hits in 5 innings, including a solo shot to Chipper Jones. What does that say about Uehara? What does it say about the US? We'll find out after the Giants starter faces Team Korea.

Finding a middle reliever to talk about for Japan is a bit like closing your eyes and throwing a dart at their roster. No one has been sharp and you may see a few bloated ERAs among the relief staff. I don't think Japan brought their best players with them in the bullpen and it may end up being their undoing in this tournament. I like Yasuhiko Yabuta of Lotte. He seems like a guy I want in a tight ballgame and he proved his grit by pitching 4 perfect outs against the US in the seventh and eighth innings, after the huge emotional swing of the overturned call. Yabuta ended the 7th with a swinging K of Alex Rodriguez before working the 8th by getting Chipper Jones to ground out to first and then proceeding to strike out Derrek Lee and Johnny Damon swinging on four pitches apiece. I'll take him as my guy to watch.

Finally, we round out the player highlights with Texas Rangers reliever Akinori Otsuka. I have always liked his stuff and he should be a huge help to the resurgent Rangers staff this season. In the WBC he has appeared in 3 games and has been absolutely dead-on perfect. If you go back to my recap of Japan vs. Korea I, from the Asian Round, you'll see that I believe Japan would have won the ballgame had Oh given Otsuka the 8th and 9th. In retrospect, perhaps he would change his mind today in light of the 2 losses Japan has suffered to their arch-rivals. We all understand a lot better what these games mean in terms of national pride after 2 rounds. (Right America?) You'll see a different philosophy with respect to Otsuka with the Finals on the line. At least I would like to think so.

Now that all that's out of the way, what will happen in the game? Here's what I think:

Seo and Uehara will work effectively early. I expect Japan to scratch out an early run via the legs of Ichiro, but Korea will get another big extra base hit from Lee Seung Yeop to see-saw the game in the other direction. The middle innings will turn into a defensive battle, with both teams tightening up and playing it safe. The late rally will come from Japan this time, and I wouldn't at all be surprised to see an unsung hero come through with the big hit for Japan. Someone like shortstop Munenori Kawasaki perhaps. I'll stick with the guys I previewed, however, and for the drama of it, I'll predict the decisive run will come off the bat of Matsunaka in the form of a top of the 9th home run. Otsuka will preserve the victory and Japan will move on to face the Dominican Republic in the final game. Japan 5, Korea 4.