Asian baseball thriving on Classic stage

Originally Published: March 14, 2006
By Eric Neel | ESPN.com

This just in: Team Korea's real good.

Ditto the Japanese.

The cameras love Big Papi and the bat flips, and the pundits focus on the triumphs and trials of the American team, but the consistently excellent play of the Asian squads is the real story of the tournament so far.

Seung Yeop Lee
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonKorea's Seung Yeop Lee has connected for a WBC-high five home runs.
Korea's pitchers have been nearly flawless, posting a tournament-best team ERA of 1.40. The Koreans' infield defense has sparkled, and their offense, led by the thunder stick of first baseman Seung Yeop Lee (five home runs through five games), has raked the ball all over the yard. They're deservedly undefeated.

Japan, meanwhile, has two losses (one to Korea and one to umpire Bob Davidson), but by every other measure the Japanese have been a tremendous success. Their offense, behind Tsuyoshi Nishioka's four runs, seven RBI and four stolen bases, leads the tournament in team OPS (.974) and runs scored (37), while their pitching staff has an ERA of just 3.03 and a team K/BB ratio of 11.33.

But more than the numbers, it's style of play that you first notice with these teams.

Ichiro has his bat pointed skyward, as if he can't decide whether to knight the pitcher or lop his head off. Korean reliever Dae-Sung Koo comes toward the plate only after an obsessive-compulsive bit of toe turning and rubber tapping. Several Asian players let their freak flags fly, throwing bits of weirdness into the dynamic -- a la Sadaharu Oh's legendary high front-foot leg lift -- both as a matter of timing for themselves and disruption for the opposition.

"It's tough when they come at you in so many ways, from so many arm slots and release points," says Team USA first baseman Mark Teixeira. "You can't get in a rhythm against them."

Creative stances and windups aren't enough in themselves to beat some of the best talent in the world, of course. Both Korea and Japan complement their funky aesthetics with a commitment to playing by the book.

"They really focus on the little things," Derek Jeter says. "Moving guys, getting bunts down, executing the hit-and-run. And, you know, those are the ways you win games when you're playing really good teams. You can't just wait on home runs when you're facing this kind of competition."

Team USA pitchers, to a man, talk about Korean and Japanese hitters bringing discipline and patience to the plate. U.S. manager Buck Martinez raves about plate coverage up and down both lineups.

"They work the count, and they put the ball in play," reliever Brad Lidge says of the Japanese hitters he faced Sunday. "Their lefties do a fantastic job of hitting the ball to left field, staying in, going with the ball where it's pitched, all the things you're supposed to do. They make it tough on you, every pitch, with their discipline up there."

Korea's Seung Yeop Lee, who is positively mashing in this tournament, says it's a matter of using the energy the pitcher provides (sounding an awful lot like the great and philosophical Oh): "These American pitchers are so powerful; you don't overcome them, but if you are patient and fortunate you move lightly and let their power work for you."

They work the count, and they put the ball in play. Their lefties do a fantastic job of hitting the ball to left field, staying in, going with the ball where it's pitched, all the things you're supposed to do. They make it tough on you, every pitch, with their discipline up
there.
Brad Lidge

USA starter Jake Peavy will tell you there are virtually no weak spots in a lineup such as Japan's, not because every hitter is necessarily All-Star caliber, but because each seems to approach his at-bats with something like Lee's sense of patience and commitment.

American bench coach Davey Johnson talks about their baseball roots.

"The two greatest hitters in Asian baseball history are Japan's Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima," he says. "They're the godfathers. Even many years later, I think most Asian hitters are influenced by the success those guys had, and that means they are all, each time up, in search of a perfect swing, balanced and level through the zone.

"The three things that ruin a swing are lunging, upper-cutting and opening your hips, and if you look at the players on these teams today, so many of them avoid those mistakes, with little timing devices like Oh's front-foot step. They have a philosophy about hitting, a tradition, I think, and it means they give you no freebies."

Clear thinking at the plate, good situational baseball and crisp play in the field -- we've seen all of that from both Korea and Japan so far in this tournament. "These two teams do not make many mistakes," Jeter says. "They don't beat themselves."

Once upon a time, such an approach wasn't enough for the top Asian teams to compete with top American teams. Chipper Jones is convinced that time has passed: "I don't think there's any doubt now," he said after Sunday's game. "They play big-league ball in Japan now."

And maybe that's the key: More than playing with a particular style, both Japan and Korea have simply made plays, play after play, like they belong in this tournament, like they are here to win it, like they have no fear.

Korean manager In-Sik Kim says his team studies United States baseball. "They have the tradition and history," he says. "We still have a lot to learn from them." Perhaps, but if this tournament is any indication, school's out.

Cue the highlight reel and you'll see Chan Ho Park, after falling behind Mexico's Geronimo Gil 3-0 Sunday night with the game on the line, raring back and challenging him with nasty stuff in on the hands and then some more away for the game-winning strikeout. Go to the tape and you'll see Japanese shortstop Munenori Kawasaki making a spectacular, over-the-shoulder basket catch that would have made the Wizard himself, Ozzie Smith, proud.

Ichiro turns a Peavy fastball into a game-opening home run on Sunday; Lee, who's known as "The Lion King" back home, beats the snot out of Dontrelle Willis' first offering and gives his club an early lead Monday night. Kawasaki dives for a ball to his left, skids up on both knees and makes a much-harder-than-it-looks throw across his body to start a double play, and the next day Korea's Jin Man Park absorbs a Chipper Jones smash, falling back on his tailbone, and quickly and calmly flips it to second to start an inning-ending, rally-killing 6-4-3.

High-level stuff. Playmaking. Some of the best we've seen in the tournament.

Sunday's USA-Japan game was terrific; fans walked out of the ballpark afterwards abuzz, saying it was maybe the best game they'd ever seen in person.

But with the way they're playing, from style to a sense of the moment, Korea and Japan could have even more in store for the people come Wednesday night.

Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.

Eric Neel | email

Page 2 columnist
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

ALSO SEE