Signaled by U.S. departure, globalization has arrived

World Classic

March 18, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

SAN DIEGO -- From its inception, the inaugural World Baseball Classic's purpose was to globalize the sport while showcasing just how far other countries have come in playing America's pastime.

Based on who made it here for the Classic semifinals, it's fair to say: Mission accomplished.

The United States was the favorite heading into the 16-team tournament, listed by one Internet betting site, PinnacleSports.com, with 8-5 odds to win it all. The Americans, however, couldn't get past the second round.

Neither could Venezuela, another highly regarded baseball nation that was listed third on PinnacleSports' board at 5-1 odds, just behind the Dominican Republic at 2-1. Instead, Japan, Cuba and South Korea have proved they are good enough to advance in a short tournament.

"I think the whole world is surprised to see the USA lost," said Dominican Republic and Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada. "I mean, everybody knew they had a good team. Like we talked about before, it's not about the name. It's about how you play on the field. [Japan and South Korea] played better and that's why they're here.

Of the four teams in today's semifinals, perhaps the biggest surprise is from the country with the most momentum, South Korea.

South Korea, which plays Japan at 10 tonight, is the only team to win all six of its Classic games.

"I did not anticipate that we would be where we are today," said South Korea's manager, In Sik Kim. "Our goal was to be one of the top two teams in the pool ... I am also surprised at the fact that we made it this far."

South Korea has done it primarily with dominating pitching, allowing just eight runs in six games. In fact, only the Americans, who lost, 7-3, scored more than two runs against South Korea.

Perhaps the country's best pitcher, Jae Weong Seo, pitches tonight against Japan. The Los Angeles Dodgers starter has allowed one run in a combined nine innings against Chinese Taipei and Mexico.

This will be his biggest test, facing South Korea's primary baseball rival.

"It goes back to our history and tradition," Seo said. " ... Whenever we have a game against Japan, we have the strong will to beat team Japan.

South Korea has beaten Japan twice in the tournament, 2-1 and 3-2.

"Those were very close games, and I believe either team could have won either game," said Japan's manager Sadaharu Oh. "We'd like to show our best performance in the third time."

The Dominican Republic and Cuba, which play the first semifinal today at 3 p.m., also have met previously in the Classic. Powered by David Ortiz's homer and a strong performance by Seo's Dodgers rotation mate, Odalis Perez, the Dominicans beat Cuba, 7-3, on Monday.

This time, the Dominican Republic will pitch its ace, 2005 American League Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon, against the Cubans, who will need to string together a staff against the Classic's most feared lineup.

Cuba's ace, Ormari Romero, was needed to clinch Wednesday's victory against Puerto Rico and will not be available. So the Cubans may have to use several pitchers today.

If the Cubans pull the upset, they'll likely need a big game from 21-year-old phenom Yulieski Gourriel. The infielder, projected as a first-round Major League draft pick if he were eligible, has two homers and six RBIs in the tournament.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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