Asia Series participants say they're in Korea to win
A day ahead of a continental baseball tournament here between league champions and All-Stars, participating managers and players said Wednesday they've come to Korea to win.
The Asia Series, set for Thursday to Sunday this week, will pit six clubs from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China and Australia against each other. South Korea is the first-time host, and Sajik Stadium in Busan, about 450 kilometers southeast of Seoul, will serve as the venue, as the teams will vie for 500 million won (US$458,000) in championship prize money.
The Samsung Lions will represent the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) as the 2012 champions, along with the Busan-based Lotte Giants. The Lions in 2011 became the first KBO team to win the Asia Series and will try to become the first club ever to claim back-to-back titles.
Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), whose teams had won the Asia Series every year until 2011, is represented by the Yomiuri Giants.
Australia has sent the Perth Heat, the champion of the Australian Baseball League (ABL) in the 2011-12 season that ended in February this year. The Lamigo Monkeys will be the Taiwanese representatives as the champions of the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL). The China Baseball League (CBL) will have an All-Star squad named the China Stars in action.
The Monkeys and the Stars will open the tournament at noon Thursday, followed by the tilt between the Lotte Giants and the Heat at 6 p.m.
The six teams have been divided into two groups of three, and after round-robin play over three days, the top clubs from the two groups will meet in the final on Sunday.
From Thursday to Saturday, there will be two games each, starting at 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sunday's final is set to begin at 2 p.m.
The Lions, the Stars and the Monkeys are in Group A. The Lotte Giants, the Yomiuri Giants and the Heat are paired in Group B.
Though the event may be regarded as an exhibition tournament by some, at least managers and players all spoke fighting words Wednesday.
Ryu Joong-il, manager of the Lions, said the goal is to win the Asia Series for the second straight year.
"To accomplish our goal, we will have to win our first game (against the Monkeys on Friday)," Ryu said, after the team's practice at Sangdong Stadium in Gimhae, just north of Busan. "We will go all out in that first game."
The Lions have sent home their two American pitchers, Mitch Talbot and Brian Gordon, who combined for 24 wins in the regular season. Yoon Sung-hwan, who won two games in the championship Korean Series, will also sit out, Ryu said.
The manager, however, has the strong bullpen to fall back on, led by lights-out closer Oh Seung-hwan.
The Lions are favored to come out on top in Group A, and the Yomiuri Giants could finish at the top of Group B. It will set up a highly-anticipated showdown in the final between the KBO and the NPB champs.
The Lions' lineup features slugging first baseman Lee Seung-yeop, who played for Yomiuri from 2006 to 2010. On the prospect of facing his former team, Lee said he will make sure the Lions get past the group stage first.
"I have some good memories and not so good ones with Yomiuri," he said. "I still have a lot of ex-teammates there. But once I step up to the plate, I will try to beat them."
Yomiuri catcher Shinnosuke Abe also said he is looking forward to going up against his former teammate.
"Just to be able to see all great Asian teams will be interesting," Abe said. "I understand the KBO was really popular this year and I want to experience that passion and enthusiasm here this week."
Abe is dealing with some knee pain, and manager Tatsunori Hara said the veteran may be limited to a DH role. Abe led the Central League, one of two leagues in NPB, with a .340 average and 104 RBI, and ranked second with 27 home runs this year.
The Japanese champions didn't bring their top starters, such as Tetsuya Utsumi, who won the Central League-best 15 games, and D.J. Houlton, who picked up 12 wins.
Their lineup, however, will be formidable. Setting up RBI chances for Abe at the top of the order will be Hayato Sakamoto and Hisayoshi Chono, who tied for the Central League lead with 173 and ranked first and second in runs scored.
In Group B, the Heat will feature a South Korean left-hander Koo Dae-sung. The 43-year-old pitcher is under contract with a different ABL team, Sydney Blue Sox, but joined the Heat in a special arrangement to help promote baseball in Australia.
Steve Fish, an American manager for the Heat, said he likes having Koo's experience in his bullpen.
"If we get into a close game and if we need to get some lefties out, we're definitely going to call him," Fish said of a pitcher who's been in the KBO, NPB and also Major League Baseball.
Fish added his team is a versatile one that can do a lot of things well.
"We have a little bit of everything; we're defensively solid and we have some pop in the lineup," he said. "Baseball is a game in which anybody can beat anybody on any given day. If we can execute little things, we have a shot at winning games."
Among position players, infielder Luke Hughes brings the most U.S. ball experience. He started with the rookie ball in 2003 and has played 106 MLB games since 2010. The 28-year-old said the Asia Series will be "a great opportunity to show the world that Australians are good enough to compete against classic teams in Korea, Japan and Taiwan."
The Asia Series began in 2005, pitting champions from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and either an All-Star team or the league champion from China against each other.
Konami, a Japanese game company, sponsored the tournament from 2005 to 2008, but pulled out after 2008, citing declining interest.
In 2009, the KBO and the NPB held a single club championship match in Japan and the KBO, NPB and CPBL champions met in Taiwan the following year. These events were not called the Asia Series. (Yonhap)