The pandemic that brought the whole world to a halt delayed the steadfast celebration that many of us may have previously taken for granted. One year later, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are ready to begin and baseball returns to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. Each team will get a preview article where we discuss a bit about baseball in the country, the team’s route to Tokyo, and which players to look for on the Olympic stage. For a refresher on the rules and format of the tournament, please refer back to my preview article, which can be found here.
Olympic Baseball Comes Full Circle for Korea
The last time baseball was on the Olympic stage, Team Korea stood above all with the Gold Medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Current Toronto Blue Jays ace Hyun Jin Ryu—then a gifted 21-year-old lefty—led his home country to glory by securing the win in the Gold Medal game. Since then, the Korean team has competed in the World Baseball Classic, Premier12 Tournament, and Asian Games. They have won medals in each tournament, but Team Korea has been exceptionally dominant in the Asian Games, where they’ve won three consecutive gold medals with a 15-and-1 win-loss record.
In addition to these major tournaments, Korean baseball was on the worldwide stage in 2020. While all of the United States and much of the world were locked down during the pandemic, the Korea Baseball Organization was one of the first few sports leagues to resume play. Fans in America thirsty for sports could tune into ESPN in the wee hours of the morning to follow the KBO. One thing that was missing, however, was the passionate fans that make Korean baseball so special. Although spectators will not be allowed in Tokyo, Korean fans are sure to be excited as they watch their country attempt back-to-back Olympic Gold Medals.
Team Korea’s Road to Tokyo
Korea clinched its spot in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in front of 44,224 fans way back in 2019. The World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) hosted the Premier12 Tournament which also served as a qualifier for the Tokyo 2020 to the top-finishing teams from the Americas and Asia/Oceania, not including the top-seeded Japan who automatically qualified.
In the opening game, four of Team Korea’s pitchers combined to hold Team Australia to one hit. In six innings of work, pitcher Hyeon-jong Yang struck out 10 batters and issued no walks. His offense scored five runs to boost Korea to a 5-0 win. Center fielder Jung-hoo Lee doubled twice, walked, and drove in one run in the win.
Korea faced off against Canada for their next game, more of a pitcher’s duel than their opening game. Each team was scoreless through the first five innings before Korea score two runs in the top of the sixth inning. Each team would score once more, giving Korea the 3-1 win. The visiting team had another strong pitching performance by starter Kwang-hyun Kim, allowing one hit, two walks, and striking out seven over six innings.
Korea easily beat Cuba in their next game, scoring seven runs while holding the opposition scoreless. It was a team effort for Korea’s pitchers, where six pitchers contributed to keeping Cuba from scoring any runs. Seven of the nine starting hitters recorded a hit in the 7-0 victory.
Moving onto the super round, the United States was Korea’s next matchup. They came out strong and early, scoring three runs in the bottom of the first inning against current Pittsburgh Pirate righty Cody Ponce. Their own starter gave up ten hits to the American squad but was able to strand most of the runners. The United States scored just one run and left 16 men on base. Korea would end up scoring twice more, winning the game 5-1. They also hit their first home run of the tournament, coming off the bat of DH Jae-hwan Kim.
By the second game in the super round, Korea encountered their first major challenge in Chinese Taipei. Kwang-hyun Kim, who started the game against Canada, struggled in his start against Chinese Taipei, allowing three runs on eight hits in 3 1/3 innings. Korea’s offense was silent, collecting just five hits. They lost this game 7-0.
Despite their previous loss, Korea’s next game would be the one that helped them clinch an Olympic berth and go on to play in the Premier 12 Championship Game. Mexico broke the tie in the top of the fifth inning, putting up two runs. Korea answered back with seven of their own. Left fielder Hyun-soo Kim drove in three runs with a double and came around to score. That would be enough for Korea, who went on to beat Mexico 7-3 and capture their spot in the Olympics.
All of the players representing Korea in Tokyo are current KBO stars. Before this week, KBO games were in full swing, and the national team was scheduled to practice together during a mid-season break. The league, however, suspended games because of increasing coronavirus cases among its players. The Korea Herald reported on the decision to suspend play, saying “The move by the KBO doesn’t just affect individual clubs like the Twins, whose most recent game came eight days ago. It will likely have a significant implication on the country’s Olympic baseball team, as KBO stars on the squad have been robbed of a week’s worth of games in which to maintain their form or bust out of a slump.” They have also been impacted by the recent monsoon which forced the league to postpone games.
Despite the unforeseen circumstances, manager Kim Kyung-moon said: “It’s not going to be an easy tournament, but we’ll put our national pride on the line. Our people have been going through so much with the pandemic, and we want to give them something to cheer about.”
The team will play two exhibition games before heading off to Tokyo. They will play the under-24 KBO All-Star Team on July 23 and the Kiwoom Heroes on July 25.
Two players from the 2008 Olympic team are with the 2020 team: catcher Min-ho Kang and outfielder Hyun-soo Kim. 10 of the players who helped Korea clinch a spot in the Olympics in the 2019 Premier 12 Tournament are on the Olympic roster including former Baltimore Orioles outfielder Hyun-soo Kim and San Francisco Giants infielder Jae-gyun Hwang.
Notable Players Missing: Because MLB is prohibiting players on the 40-man roster from joining their countries in Tokyo, some players who may have played on Team Korea are notably absent. 2008 Gold Medal Game winner Hyun Jin Ryu is one absentee, currently on the Toronto Blue Jays. Ji-Man Choi (Tampa Bay Rays 1B), Ha-Seong Kim (San Diego Padres IF), Kwang-Hyun Kim (St. Louis Cardinals P), and Hyeon-jong Yang (Texas Rangers P) are others who are not able to participate.
Two former MLB players who are eligible to participate but were left off the national team roster are Shin-soo Choo and Seing-hwan Oh. Choo, who played 16 Major League seasons, was beloved by Texas Rangers fans from 2014-2020. Oh, who played four Major League seasons, recorded 42 saves with three different teams from 2016-2019. Choo has hit 10 home runs this season and Oh leads the KBO in saves, but both are 39 years old.
On Monday, Adam Sloate will preview Team Japan. On Wednesday, Carlos Marcano will preview Team Dominican Republic. On Friday, I will preview Team USA.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns)