Lee Jung-Hoo’s father may be a one of Korean baseball’s former stars, but the 19-year-old is making a name for himself as a player in his own right.
The young star proved it again Friday night, this time while wearing the national team uniform and with his famous father watching from the dugout.
Lee broke a scoreless tie with an RBI triple in the sixth inning, starter Im Gi-yeong threw seven scoreless frames and Korea won a low-scoring affair against Taiwan 1-0 in the second game of the Asia Professional Baseball Championship at Tokyo Dome.
“Yesterday, we lost to Japan, but our players didn’t get down,” Korean manager Sun Dong-yol said. “I told them to compete with confidence. Our starter pitched very well. Im pitched over seven innings with 109 pitches, and all the pitches he threw were great. Our other pitchers were great as well.
“Lee Jung-hoo gave us the important run that eventually became the winning run for us.”
After losing to Japan in the opener on Thursday, Korea needed a victory to avoid being knocked out of the event. Im kept them afloat in a tight contest that could’ve gone either way early on.
“I just followed (catcher) Han Seung-taek’s good lead, and the fielders behind me did a great job,” Im said. “So I was able to pitch without being very nervous.
“We had our backs against the wall today. It was a must-win game for us. That was the mindset I had going to the mound.”
Lee was 0-for-2 when he came to the plate to face the Chiba Lotte Marines’ Chen Kuan-yu, the Taiwanese starter, with two outs and Kim Ha-Seong on first base.
After taking a first-pitch curveball for ball one, Lee sent a forkball to the wall in right and raced around the bases as Kim scored from first.
“He’s got a knack for making contact,” Sun said of Lee. “The Taiwanese starter was throwing good pitches, but after he reached 100 pitches he started relying on his breaking ball and Lee Jung took advantage. I give him all the credit.”
There were cheers on both sides afterward, as Korean fans celebrated Lee’s hit and the Taiwanese supporters lauded Chen’s effort as he left the mound following 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball.
“It wasn’t so bad overall,” said Chen, who struck out six and walked four. “It’s just too bad about that pitch in the sixth. I was trying to get a strike with an inside breaking ball. That pitch came in high and got hit, and it was frustrating.”
Lee also had a big hit against Japan the previous night, driving in two runs with a double in South Korea’s 8-7 defeat. The young outfielder is the son of Lee Jong-beom, a former KBO Rookie of the Year and MVP who is a base-running coach on Sun’s staff.
The younger Lee won the league’s top rookie award this year after hitting .324 with 47 RBIs and an .813 on-base plus slugging percentage for the Nexen Heroes, according to MyKBO.net.
“(Lee Jong-beom) came into professional baseball after college, where his son came in after high school,” Sun said. “That four-year difference makes a big difference in my opinion. But I think he is as good as his father in terms of making contact. If he keeps developing, I think he’s going to be a better player and I think he has a chance to have better results than his father did.”
Korea’s other hero was Samsung Lions reliever Jang Pill-joon, who came into the game with runners on second and third and his team clinging to a one-run lead in the eighth. He struck out cleanup hitter Chen Tzu-hao to end the inning. He worked around a single in the ninth to secure the Korean victory.
Im struck out seven and walked three over seven scoreless frames to earn the win, leaning heavily on a change-up the Taiwanese didn’t have an answer for.
“It’s the pitch I have the most confidence in,” he said.
Im, who pitches for the Kia Tigers in KBO, allowed just two hits.
For Taiwan it was a close game and a tough loss.
“I have no regrets,” manager Hong I-chung said. “We lost today, but somebody has to lose. We still played a good game and are only going to gain more experience going forward.
The Taiwanese team had three players familiar to Japanese fans. In addition to Chen, the Yomiuri Giants’ Yoh Daikan and Seibu Lions’ Wu Nien-ting also suited up for Taiwan. Yoh, playing in his home stadium, was 1-for-4, while Wu went 0-for-3.
They’ll face Japan on Saturday and will need a victory to have a chance to remain alive in the tournament.
“The Japanese team is very strong and competitive,” Chen said. “We have our backs against the wall. If each of our players performs his role, I’m sure it’s going to be a good game. I’m just going to encourage them to enjoy the game in a setting as great as this.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report