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Korea Keeps U.S. Alive

A victory over Mexico, with Clemens starting, would put Americans in Classic semifinals.

March 16, 2006|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

At the end of a gripping Wednesday night at Angel Stadium, where the World Baseball Classic played to the ideals of national pride and the suddenly international game, Korea hoisted its flag on a U.S. diamond, and Team USA got another chance.

By virtue of Korea's 2-1 victory over Japan, the U.S. will advance to the WBC final round with a win today against Mexico.

Korea, which beat Japan for the second time in 10 days and advances with the tournament's only 6-0 record, Cuba and the Dominican Republic are in, starting Saturday in San Diego.

Team USA, which lost to Korea on Monday and could be without two key players, can be, and will start Roger Clemens. Oliver Perez, who won seven games last season for the Pittsburgh Pirates, is scheduled to start for Mexico.

There is a tiebreaker scenario in which the U.S. could lose and still advance, but it is remote. As it is, the U.S. was granted this opportunity on a cool night, when hundreds of flags fluttered in the stands, some of them Japanese, most of them Korean.

Korean fans clapped their noise makers, waved banners and chanted "Hee-Seop Choi!" when the cleanup hitter came to the plate.

Before the Asian pool began, Ichiro Suzuki had predicted Team Japan would prove the other teams -- Korea, China and Chinese Taipei -- to be 30 years behind Japanese baseball. In the first-round pool finale at the Tokyo Dome, Korea beat Japan, 3-2.

Ten days later, the managers, Japan's Sadaharu Oh and Korea's In Sik Kim, neither greeted each other during pregame introductions nor posed together for a picture at home plate, which other managers have done during the tournament.

Korea arrived the tournament's last unbeaten team. Japan had lost twice, to Korea and, controversially, to the U.S.

In a riveting game before 39,679, the U.S. hopes for a high-scoring Japanese victory -- one of the criteria for U.S. advancement -- were dashed. Korea starter Chan Ho Park, who has three saves in the tournament, pitched five scoreless innings. Japan starter Shunsuke Watanabe, a submariner, gave up one hit in six scoreless innings.

Korea all but extended the U.S. stay in the tournament in the eighth inning, when Jong Beom Lee, Korea's captain and center fielder, lined a two-run double into left-center off Japan reliever Kyuji Fujikawa. Before Lee's pivotal hit, Japan appeared to have lead runner Min Jae Kim thrown out at third base on a single, but third baseman Toshiaki Imae had the ball jarred from his glove. That set up runners at second and third with one out for Lee.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka homered to lead off the bottom of the ninth to draw Japan within 2-1, but Korean closer Seung Hwan Oh struck out two batters with a runner at first to end the game.

To the delight of the crowd, Korean players took a lap around the field waving a Korean flag while Japanese players stood glumly at their dugout railing. They concluded their jaunt at the mound, where they planted the flag and jumped into each other's arms.

Players and coaches from Team USA planned to watch the game from their hotel rooms, or in restaurants, or on the Internet, where they could find it.

"I've never been so nervous watching a baseball game that I wasn't playing in," U.S. Manager Buck Martinez said.

They will give the ball to Clemens and have it be something more than an exhibition, particularly if it were to be Clemens' final start, which few really believe.

Clemens himself has appeared to lean both ways, casting misgivings about pitching a 23rd season while visiting with the Texas Rangers and continuing discussions with the Houston Astros.

"I've only known Roger for a couple weeks, but I have a hard time believing this is his last start," catcher Michael Barrett said. "He looks so good right now. If [Thursday] is his last start, it'll be a huge honor for me."

Left fielder Johnny Damon and first baseman Derrek Lee have sore left shoulders and neither is expected to play against Mexico.

Damon, who has tendinitis, will be unable to play defensively for at least a few days. He could be the designated hitter, but that would take Alex Rodriguez or Chipper Jones out of the lineup.

Lee suffered a shoulder injury diving for a bunt against Japan, did not play against Korea, and appears to be caught between his own wish to play and the Chicago Cubs' wish that he not.

Mark Teixeira, who hit .301 and drove in 144 runs for the Rangers last season but is hitless in the tournament, probably will start at first base. Jeff Francoeur will start in left field.

"Like I've said all along, there's no better big-game pitcher in baseball than Roger Clemens," Martinez said. "The other night when we were playing Korea, Roger was studying the Mexican hitters' hitting charts. He is into it. We certainly hope to give him some run support and let him do his thing."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Standings

*--* COUNTRY W L PCT Korea 3 0 1.000 United States 1 1 500 Japan 1 2 333 Mexico 0 2 000

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