Koreans end it in a hurry
After taking advantage of early Venezuelan miscues, Korea is ready for prime time
LOS ANGELES -- It is a testament to the energy of the boisterous Korean contingent at Dodger Stadium on Saturday night that the 2009 World Baseball Classic semifinal between Venezuela and Korea felt like a game at all. The Korean faithful cheered every crack of the bat and oohed and aahed even routine plays in the field as if the game were supercharged with drama from the first pitch to the last.
It was not.
It was over almost before it began.
The game was over before those of us in the press box had the chance to thoroughly discuss our reservations about Venezuelan manager Luis Sojo's decision to start Seattle Mariners pitcher Carlos Silva (he of the 6.46 ERA in 2008) and not his Mariners teammate Felix Hernandez. And it was over before the vaunted Venezuelan lineup -- featuring Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Bobby Abreu -- ever stepped to the plate in Korea's 10-2 victory.
It was over the minute Abreu absentmindedly dropped a looping fly ball in right field in the first inning, allowing Korea's Keun-Woo Jeong to reach base, and then halfheartedly lobbed a throw into second base, enabling Yong-Kyu Lee to skate home standing up. "I closed my glove too early," Abreu said later.
"Bob's error," a dumbfounded Sojo said afterward, "we don't know how that happened."
Abreu's error opened the door to a five-run Korean first that seemed to set a tone. Silva, whose pitches looked lifeless and flat from the start, was chased early in the second inning, having surrendered home runs to Cleveland Indians outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and Team Korea's grinning Ruthian slugger Tae-Kyun Kim, whose second-inning shot over the left-field wall was his third home run and 11th RBI of this year's Classic.
The Venezuelan side, which lost only its second game in the tournament, went on to commit five errors and give up 10 runs on the night. It looked as though it were playing a preseason game in March, with all the rusty ugliness you would expect to see in springtime.
"The way we lost, this was very painful," Sojo said.
Korea, on the other hand, perhaps spurred on by coming up just short of the final game in the 2006 WBC, perhaps inspired by its devoted fans with their ThunderStix, was playing playoff-caliber ball.
"The Korean team showed they were here to win," Sojo said.
The Korean players were nearly flawless in the field (an eighth-inning misplay by first baseman Kim was the lone exception) and capitalized on each of their opponent's mistakes, scoring all 10 of their runs in the four innings during which Venezuela made an error.
"We didn't expect to win," Korean manager In-Sik Kim said during the postgame news conference. "The errors by the other team played a critical part in our victory."
So, too, did Korea's patience at the plate, making first Silva and then his replacements, Enrique Gonzalez and Victor Zambrano, throw the ball in hitters' zones and on hitters' counts. In addition to its 10 hits, Korea drew eight walks on the night.
"Our players do not have bad habits," In-Sik Kim said matter-of-factly. "We are able to bother other teams. If there is a bad ball, we don't swing, and if it is good, we swing hard."
But although the thousands of Korean fans were dazzled by what their countrymen did with their bats -- "at times I thought we were playing in Korea," Sojo joked -- the real secret to Korea's success was the strong effort of its starting pitcher, Suk-Min Yoon, who scattered seven hits, walked one and struck out four against Venezuela.
I believe there are excellent players in Korea. I hope they can advance to the major leagues in great numbers and very soon.” -- Korea outfielder Shin-Soo Choo
"I felt confident," Yoon said afterward. "I did not know who they were, so I was confident against them."
The two runs and one walk he gave up Saturday night were the first in either category he has surrendered in 16 innings of work in this year's Classic.
"What you saw today was special," Sojo said. "To see this kid throw the way he did was really something." Abreu, who managed a single in the first inning, was similarly impressed. "He knows how to switch speeds and locations," he said. "He pitched a dominant game."
Whether Yoon realized it or not, that dominant game came against a Venezuelan lineup chock-full of major league talent, yet it was Yoon, Choo, Kim and their mates who looked ready for prime time. If the first World Baseball Classic in 2006 was Korea's coming-out party, this year's tournament is looking like the moment when it announces its arrival on the big stage.
Choo already is a key contributor on a major league team, and Sojo believes it won't be long before others from this team join him.
"I believe there are excellent players in Korea," Choo said in the press room late Saturday. "I hope they can advance to the major leagues in great numbers and very soon."
For now, he and his teammates will settle for advancing to the WBC final on Monday night, when they will face either Team USA or its archrival, Team Japan, which Korea already has faced four times in this WBC.
"It does not matter who you face," a smiling, confident In-Sik Kim said as he and his team looked ahead to Monday. "We hope the best team out of the two teams moves ahead and we hope maybe they do so with pitchers who have used up all their energy."
Here's hoping it's a game, whomever the Koreans face.
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com.