By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Feb. 21 (Yonhap) -- Chicago White Sox All-Star closer Liam Hendriks sent shockwaves through the baseball world last month when he announced he had been diagnosed with the Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and he would begin treatment immediately. It also dealt a big blow to his native Australia's chances at next month's World Baseball Classic (WBC).
As Australia manager David Nilsson sees it, Hendriks will still be "part of the team, whether he is in Tokyo or not" for the opening round of the WBC.
"And he knows that. We hope that we do him proud with our performance," Nilsson told Yonhap News Agency in an interview Monday. "And I'm sure he'll be watching us in Arizona (where the White Sox have spring training)."
Nilsson, the 1999 National League All-Star catcher for the Milwaukee Brewers, said his team will miss Hendriks in more ways than one.
"I think everyone was looking forward to Liam, not just being on the team, but spending some time with him prior to the tournament, being in camp with us," the manager said of the two-time Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year. "A lot of the guys on the team grew up playing with Liam and living in the same hometown. So for a lot of reasons, we were just looking to spend some time with Liam and his family."
Nilsson insisted, however, that rallying around the missing teammate or drawing inspiration from him can only take Australia so far.
"I don't think motivation is going to be the difference of winning or losing a game," he said, adding that he wasn't being disrespectful to Hendriks. "I think the way we execute in certain situations, how we pitch in certain situations, and how we hit in certain situations is going to determine the outcome of the game."
Nilsson is hoping Australia will hit the ground running from the get-go, as his team prepares for the opening game against South Korea on March 9. Australia will travel to Japan on Thursday and will have its first workout the following day.
That first game will be an opportunity for redemption for Australia.
At the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) Premier12 tournament in November 2019, Australia was blanked by South Korea 5-0 in Seoul, managing just one hit against four pitchers and striking out 12 times.
"I was very, very disappointed with our performance in the Premier12 against Korea. We weren't really ready for that," Nilsson said. "And so I'm hoping we can have a good showing against Korea and play well."
Australia and South Korea will be in Pool B in the opening round, along with Japan, China and the Czech Republic. The top two countries after round-robin action will move on to the quarterfinals. And with world No. 1 Japan widely regarded as the favorite to win the group, South Korea and Australia, ranked fourth and 10th, are expected to battle for the second seed.
At every opportunity, South Korean manager Lee Kang-chul has said the Australia game is a must-win one for his side. When asked if he saw it the same way, Nilsson replied, "Absolutely."
"Japan is obviously the favorite, and Australia-Korea is a very big game," he said. "The fact that it's the first game makes it even bigger. We're going to be doing all we can to try to get a good result."
South Korea's focus on Australia is such that Lee said he selected groundball pitchers with good breaking pitches specifically to attack Australian hitters.
Nilsson said he was already bracing for a challenging competition, regardless of the types of pitchers that South Korea will have.
"Hitting in those competitions is very tough. Scoring runs in any international competition is very difficult. One of the reasons why is because the matchups are very good," he said. "And Korea has done a good job in the past of scouting all teams, not just us. So I expect them to be very difficult and to give us a good matchup. If that's what the manager feels is his best chance, our job is just try to combat that."
Most players on the Australian team just completed their domestic Australian Baseball League (ABL) seasons, whereas players for South Korea, based in either Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) or Major League Baseball (MLB), are trying to ramp up for the new season. Their offseason preparation is being disrupted by the WBC, which starts about a few weeks before the KBO and MLB regular seasons, and not all South Korean players will be at their sharpest for the tournament.
Still, Nilsson said he doesn't see that as an advantage for his team.
"I hope the Korean players aren't quite sharp and not ready. But I don't think that's the case," Nilsson said. "I think the Korean team and the Korean manager and their players, they knew a year ago when the World Baseball Classic was going to be. So I'm pretty confident that the Korean team is going to be ready to go."
With the first game of the tournament still a couple of weeks away, Nilsson said it won't be until much closer to action that the focus will shift to South Korea.
"Right now, it's more about us preparing individually and making sure that we are prepared to play any team and that we're doing the best that we can," he said. "So there will come a day sometime prior to the start of the WBC where our whole focus is on Korea. We're just not there yet."
Nilsson's 30-man squad is a blend of national team mainstays, such as pitcher Tim Atherton and outfielder/third baseman Tim Kennelly, and youngsters like catcher Alex Hall, former under-23 captain for his country, and pitcher Blake Townsend, who has Triple-A experience at 21. Two players, pitcher Warwick Saupold and outfielder Aaron Whitefield, bring major league experience.
"I'm really pleased with what I have now. We definitely have a lot more younger guys than we did back in 2019 at the Premier12," Nilsson said. "But they've been playing professional baseball and minor leagues in America. So this will be their chance to step up to the national team."
The manager said he particularly likes his players' commitment to the team goal, which is to reach the quarterfinals "and we'll take it from there."
"I don't think anyone is there for their own benefit. We're all about the outcome of the team and individually doing whatever it takes for the team to win," he said. "I know that our players are very resilient. We don't have quite the resources that other countries have. And we just put that to the side and get on with it. So I think we're a very resilient group."