(ATTN: ADDS comments in paras 9-12, photos; UPDATES with manager's departure)
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Jan. 5 (Yonhap) -- With an eye on taking the ever-important first game of a major baseball tournament in March, Lee Kang-chul, manager of the South Korean national team, flew to Australia on Thursday for a scouting trip.
Lee and four members of his coaching staff will be checking on Australian Baseball League (ABL) games through Sunday and arrive back home Monday.
South Korea will face Australia in the first Pool B game of the World Baseball Classic (WBC) on March 9 at Tokyo Dome. South Korea will also face world No. 1 Japan, China and the Czech Republic in the preliminary round, with the top two teams advancing to the quarterfinals.
Lee has openly stated that the main focus for South Korea is on defeating Australia. In announcing South Korea's 30-man roster Wednesday, Lee said he selected groundball pitchers who throw sharp breaking balls because Australian hitters tend to struggle against such pitches. Lee also said South Korea's lineup will mostly be filled with left-handed batters because Australia has more right-handers than left-handers.
With Japan favored to win Pool B, South Korea and Australia will be vying for the one last ticket to the quarterfinals out of this group. China and the Czech Republic are considered also-rans in Pool B.
If South Korea beats Australia, then it can still afford to lose to Japan because it will most likely beat the other two teams and finish with the second-best record in the group. If Australia falls to South Korea and then also loses to Japan, the best it can hope for is third place in Pool B.
However, if South Korea drops to Australia, it has to beat Japan just to have a shot at reaching the quarterfinals.
And that's no easy task, with major league stars, such as Shohei Ohtani and Yu Darvish, set to play for Japan. The team will also feature veterans from the domestic Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league, considered a notch or two above the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO).
Before boarding his flight Thursday afternoon, Lee told reporters he had planned this scouting trip in November.
"Players who will likely make the Australian national team will play in ABL games this weekend," Lee said. "We'll keep a close eye on those players and think about who's going to be our starting pitcher in that first game."
Lee said he expects Australia to also go all-in on that opening game.
"We're going to cast a wide net and watch as many players as we can," Lee added. "You never know how things will turn out in a short tournament like this. They have some hard-throwing pitchers and it could be a close game."
South Korea will try to get out of the first round for the first time since the second WBC in 2009, when it lost to Japan in extra innings in the final.
South Korea selected three major leaguers: San Diego Padres infielder Kim Ha-seong, Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Choi Ji-man and St. Louis Cardinals infielder Tommy Edman, who was born to an American father and a Korean mother.
The team also features four ex-major leaguers in SSG Landers pitcher Kim Kwang-hyun, Kia Tigers pitcher Yang Hyeon-jong, LG Twins outfielder Kim Hyun-soo and KT Wiz infielder Park Byung-ho.
The reigning KBO regular season MVP Lee Jung-hoo, who will be posted for major league clubs after the 2023 season, also made the team.