Old rivals have a score to settle

3/3/2006 - MLB

Every game in the World Baseball Classic will count, but none more so than the tournament opener, when Korea and Chinese Taipei renew their old rivalry.

Three years ago, Chinese Taipei broke Korean hearts by coming from two runs down in the ninth inning to beat Korea 5-4 in the 2003 Asia Championship in Sapporo, Japan. The victory allowed the underdogs from Taipei to go to the Athens Olympics at the expense of 2000 bronze medalist Korea -- a wound the Koreans have not forgotten.

"Until the last out of the ninth inning, you can't let up," Lee Jeong Bum, a longtime veteran of pro ball in both Japan and Korea, said at a press conference in Tokyo on Tuesday.

"I don't want to leave here with any regrets. This time, we will beat Chinese Taipei on March 3."

Chinese Taipei skipper Lin Hua-wei knows how talented his opponent is.

"Korea has many pitchers playing in the major leagues, and that is the highest level in the world," Lin said. "They also have some great hitters playing in America and in Korea. But we have prepared well and we know who we have to be careful of."

Lin, who says his team boasts "no outstanding talents," will be handicapped by the absence of New York Yankees right-hander Chien-Ming Wang, who declined to play. Although he got a no-decision in that fateful game, Wang started and pitched well at Sapporo Dome.

"Without Chien-Ming Wang, I think we will have a tough time making it past Tokyo," Lin said. "But it is baseball, and anything can happen."

Both teams have good speed and defense -- daring base running by Chinese Taipei contributed to Korea's downfall -- but Korea has the best array of major-league arms in Pool A, headlined by Chan Ho Park, Byung-Hyun Kim and Jae Weong Seo.

Korean skipper In Suk Kim also has a pair of sluggers in Japan-based Seung Yeop Lee and Hee Seop Choi of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a duo Chinese Taipei cannot match.

Park, however, said that despite its lack of major-league talent, Chinese Taipei will not roll over.

"I have been playing against Chinese Taipei for many years," Park said. "We had a nightmare in Sapporo, and we can never take them lightly. They are always tough to play."

While the managers of both Korea and Chinese Taipei believe a victory over host Japan is a possibility, everyone expects Japan to reach the quarterfinals with two victories. The need to secure at least two victories means everyone will be looking to make a meal out of the easiest prey at Tokyo Dome: relative baseball newcomer China.

The Chinese manager, Jim Lefebvre, knows exactly what he's up against -- starting with Japan in the tournament's second game.

"Japan is loaded, and we also found out that the other teams are going to load up on us," Lefebvre said. "They feel that this [game against us] is one victory they're going to get, so they're loading up on us. That's fine. That's the way it's going to be."

If the Koreans lose to Chinese Taipei, they will attempt to plow Lefebvre's men into the dome's artificial grass to prepare for their finale against Japan. If Chinese Taipei loses the opener, it will come gunning for its mainland rival on Sunday.

Either way, China has its back against a great wall.

"We just want to play good, solid baseball, you know, make the plays, pitch well, be aggressive, play with a lot of confidence," said Lefebvre, who spent five seasons in Japan in addition to his experience in the majors.

"When you pass over the stars, guys from the major leagues and all that, you still have to play the game," added Lefebvre "That's the biggest thing. Once you get past looking at who you're playing against, now let's go out and play baseball. We've got to make sure we focus on one game at a time. We have somewhat of a game plan."

Shortstop and captain Zhang Yufeng echoed his skipper's sentiment.

"I realize [our opponents] all have good talent throughout," he said. "I want them to bring out their best. And I want to bring out my best as well."

Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.