I've got Korean fever

By Chris Ruddick
MLB Editor

Chris Ruddick Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - I am almost glad the United States got knocked out of the World Baseball Classic on Thursday. Aside from the rout of international powerhouse South Africa, did anyone ever have the feeling that Team USA was one of the best teams in this tournament.

Admittedly, I said in my WBC preview that if the United States did not reach at least the semifinals, then the tournament would be considered a disaster. Well it could still be considered a catastrophe for Commissioner Bud Selig, but at least he has four teams in the semifinals in Korea, Japan, Cuba and the Dominican Republic that will play hard and are actually excited to be there.

You got the sense from watching the American team that they were always checking their watches to see when this goofy thing was over. When this whole idea came to pass, you could just tell Team USA could care less. Other teams had players begging to represent their country, whereas the U.S. team had big stars jumping ship daily.

No offense, but when I think of the best players in America, Dan Wheeler, Matt Holliday and Michael Barret don't immediately come to mind.

Too bad the semifinals and final will be contested in San Diego, where the event without the Americans will be a mere blip on the sports radar especially with March Madness in full swing. The games are sold out, but a lot of those tickets were sold with the hope the U.S. would be playing. Expect to see a lot of empty seats Saturday at PETCO Park.

Going into the WBC I was one of its proponents, but over the course of the last two weeks I have to confess that I have gone back-and-forth on my actual interest in the event. Maybe my enthusiasm waned because I don't get ESPNdeportes, where most of the games were carried live. Having the games replayed on tape delay at 3:00 a.m. on ESPN2 has not done much to get me excited either.

One thing, though, that has kept me tuned in of late has been the rock-steady play of the team from Korea. They just seem to do everything right and if you are a fan of small-ball baseball, this is the team for you.

Not to mention, I gave them no shot at advancing past Round 1 in my initial WBC preview. I believe my exact analysis of Korea was - Hope to see you at the next event.

Korea, though, has no doubt been the surprise of the World Baseball Classic and what has made its perfect 6-0 run even more impressive is that there is no real major league talent on the roster. You won't find a Roger Clemens or a Johan Santana among the major league arms Korea has thrown out there, but big leaguers Chan Ho Park, Jae-Weong Seo, Sun-Woo Kim, Dae-Sung Koo and Byung- Hyun Kim have headlined a staff that has pitched to a tournament-best 1.33 earned run average.

Park, who is probably the most famous player ever produced by Korea, has been known more for his ineffectiveness and his trips to the disabled list over the past couple of years in the majors. But on this stage he has been absolutely brilliant, as he has scattered just four hits over 10 scoreless innings, while striking out seven in mostly a relief role.

The unquestionable star of the tournament has been first baseman Seung Yeop Lee, who has drilled five home runs with 10 RBI, while hitting at a .400 clip. Centerfielder Jong Beom Lee has also emerged as a star, as his five doubles lead the tournament and his .429 average tops the Korean team.

With those two studs, how did MLB wind up with Hee Sop Choi as the first Korean-born position player. For those of you keeping score, Choi, the only major-leaguer in the lineup for Korea, is hitting a mighty .211 in the event.

By the way Korea is doing all this without perhaps its best hitter in third baseman Dong Joo Kim, who was forced out of the tournament with a shoulder injury in the first game.

Unfortunately, though, the Koreans have not had the opportunity to play before the frenzied crowd they saw in Tokyo in Round 1. Rather than playing the second round in Puerto Rico where its style of play would have been appreciated, Korea was lumped into the Pool that played in the United States, where the event has drawn less of an audience than David Lee Roth's radio show.

You think this tournament was important in Korea? Well try this on for size. The South Korean government is actually considering exempting members of the team from military service due to their success in the event. The privilege will benefit 11 of the squad's 30 players who have yet to fulfill their military duties.

Thanks to their longtime standoff with North Korea, all South Korean men over 20 without major mental or physical problems are obligated to undergo military service of at least two years.

Sadly, though, I think my boys from Korea are about to have their magical run ended. They meet up with Japan for the third time this tournament in the second of two Saturday semifinals.

In the NFL when a team loses twice to another team and then meets that same team in playoffs I always give the edge to the squad that has lost twice. Why? I have no idea, because I am usually wrong, but I just think it is hard to beat a team three times in one season.

So by that logic I like Japan on Saturday. Not to mention that Japan will be looking for payback after a pair of close losses to Korea, including one earlier in the week that would have eliminated it, had it none been for the ineffective Americans.

The Dominicans will then roll past Cuba, then defeat Japan on Monday for the first-ever World Baseball Classic championship. That should make Selig happy considering the Dominican Republic team is comprised of mostly major leaguers.

They care, though, one way or the other whether they win or lose.

While I am throwing some predictions out there, my Final Four picks are Duke, Gonzaga, Ohio State and North Carolina. The Blue Devils will then walk away with the National Title in a tightly-contested win over the Buckeyes in the championship game, which - to keep this baseball related - happens to fall on Opening Day.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.
Chris Ruddick
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