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South Koreans gaining ground rapidly on baseball rivals

by Jason Coskrey

SAN DIEGO — South Korean fans shouted “This is Korea” as a part of a cheer during their team’s game against Japan at the World Baseball Classic.

For a few moments after the game Tuesday, as the South Korean flag was planted on the mound at PETCO Park to celebrate a 4-1 win, it was hard to argue with them.

South Korea’s fans came out in mass and turned the contest into a virtual home game for their team, which improved to 4-2 all-time against Japan in WBC competition.

“We faced Japan and we won once again,” right fielder Lee Jin Young said. “I am very happy with myself and all the players are very happy about it.”

While the win puts South Korea in the semifinals, many of its players point to the victory as the latest sign they are gaining ground on their rivals in the baseball world.

“I think Japan can be labeled as having a higher level than us,” South Korea manager Kim In Sik said. “But in baseball, it doesn’t mean they always win. Even though they are of a higher level in terms of skill, sometimes they lose.”

After getting blown out 14-2 in the teams’ first meeting during the 2009 WBC, South Korea has beaten Japan two consecutive times.

In both victories it was starting pitcher Bong Jung Keun who set the pace for his team on the mound.

Using information received from teammate Kim Kwang Hyun, who gave up eight runs in the first meeting, Bong shut out Japan for 5 1/3 innings in South Korea’s 1-0 win in the Pool A final on March 9 in Tokyo.

The former major leaguer was in top form again in his second start against Japan, allowing just one run over 5 1/3 innings in the 4-1 win.

Bong was also on the South Korea team that lost to Japan in the semifinals of the 2006 WBC, also at PETCO Park.

Despite the emotional loss that year,the WBC gave South Korea the chance to face off against the very best Japan had to offer, including major leaguer Ichiro Suzuki, and helped build their confidence.

“The first time, Japan had some major league players,” Bong said. “But in three games, we won twice and lost once. Of course Japan had better technique, but I think our spiritual strength was stronger.”

Facing Japan in the first WBC and winning the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics helped the South Koreans feel it could compete with Japan as equals.

“I think it started from the Olympics,” Lee Jin Young said. “We won and we’ve come to this point. I think we are at the same level and I think they are our rivals. We thought we should win this game. That’s how we prepared mentally.”

Their positive thinking paid off in the form of a trip to the WBC semifinals. South Korea can look forward to playing in the Pool 1 final, where they will face either Cuba or Japan, to determine who they play in the semifinals.

“Every player is happy about this,” center fielder Lee Yong Kyu said. “This is not the end of it. There are more games left for us and we will keep on doing our best.”