Aussie, Aussie, awesome! Korea stunned in Pool B opener

March 9th, 2023

TOKYO -- Robbie Glendinning hit 19 home runs in Double-A last year and added six more this winter playing for Melbourne in the Australia Baseball League. Suffice to say, he’d definitely never hit a home run that was watched by so many people as he did on Thursday in the World Baseball Classic.

With Korea leading by two runs in the top of the seventh inning and two men on base in the first game of Pool B play inside the Tokyo Dome, Glendinning -- who played in Double-A for the Royals last season -- stepped to the dish to face Korea’s long-haired reliever, Won-Jung Kim. On a 1-1 pitch, Glendinning launched a moonshot to left field. You could hear a collective gasp from the Tokyo Dome crowd, and it was the biggest blow in Australia’s stunning 8-7 victory over the potent Koreans.

"I swung through the split on the first pitch. I thought I saw it pretty well and I took a decent swing," Glendinning said after the game. "So, I was thinking fastball and I said to myself, 'If I see that again, just get to the bottom of the baseball.' I hit it and I knew it was one of the best feelings I've had. I remember looking in the dugout and seeing everyone just going crazy."

It’s arguably Australia’s biggest win in history, ranking up there with its 17-7 mercy-rule defeat of Mexico in the 2009 Classic and its 2-1 win over a prospect-laden Team USA in the 2019 WBSC Premier12, an international tournament featuring the world's top 12-ranked national teams.

Glendinning’s three-run home run gave the Australians a 5-4 lead, which an inning later became 8-4. They needed every one of those runs because the Koreans mounted a three-run charge in the bottom of the eighth to pull within one. But they could get no closer.

While Glendinning’s home run was startling, he also made a heads-up play at second base that blunted a Team Korea rally. In the bottom of the seventh, pinch-hitter Baekho Kang smashed a one-out double to left field. Unfortunately, he briefly lifted his foot off the bag as he gestured toward the dugout in celebration.

In that briefest of moments, Glendinning made sure to apply the tag. Following a replay review, the umpires determined that Kang was out.

"I know that previously I've tagged guys when they have come off the base, so I knew in that situation he might not have been thinking," Glendinning said. "When I put the tag on, I knew for a fact that he came off the base. I think the replay might have shown it pretty clear. But, yeah, I was pretty adamant towards the dugout that I got him."

"First of all, I didn't see it," Australia manager Dave Nilsson said. "Robbie was the one responsible for the whole play. The center fielder, Aaron Whitefield, didn't give up, made a great throw, and then Robbie made a heads-up play and was all in on it. He did it all on his own. It was a big turning point in the game, and he let the dugout know what had happened, so that's just a great moment by a great player."

Australia added three more runs in the eighth thanks to a Robbie Perkins home run to extend the lead to 8-4 and make Glendinning’s pregame comments seem awfully prescient.

“I think our strength is our lineup,” Glendinning said before the game. “We can really score a lot of runs in a hurry. I think one through nine, we have some strong hitters. We have banded together as a team really well, and I think our offense is pretty dangerous.”

Though they eventually came up short, the Koreans' deep lineup pushed Team Australia to the brink. They scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth as the Aussies struggled to find the strike zone. Korea scored three runs on five walks and a hit-by-pitch in the inning. They even had the bases loaded for the powerful if whiff-happy outfielder Sung-bum Na. Na has smashed 233 home runs during his KBO career, but tied for the KBO lead in strikeouts last year with 137.

Australia reliever Sam Holland took advantage of that by punching out the slugger on an 0-2 slider that hung up in the zone. On another day, Na may have hit it a mile. On this one, he came up empty.

Things weren’t any easier for Australian closer Josh Guyer, though. The New South Wales native had to face Tommy Edman, Ha-Seong Kim and reigning Jung-Hoo Lee. That’s two current Major Leaguers and one who plans on being there by Spring Training next year

Guyer worked around a leadoff single by Edman by getting Kim and Lee to fly out before Edman was caught stealing to end the game.

In a contest marred by delays and replay reviews, naturally the game’s final play needed one, too. Though Australia had to wait to celebrate, it surely couldn’t be seen on the players' faces.

For Team Korea, the loss is a huge dent to its goal of moving to the second round for the first time since the 2009 tournament, making Friday’s game against Japan (5 a.m. ET, FS1) an almost must-win. Manager Kang-chul Lee said the team wouldn’t prepare any differently, but he did make a major change: Instead of throwing NC Dinos ace Chang-Mo Koo, he’ll turn to former Cardinals starter Kwang-hyun Kim. He had previously indicated that Kim would be used out of the bullpen.

"The reason why Kwang-hyun Kim will be the starting pitcher for tomorrow is that he's a well-experienced pitcher," Lee said. "I think he could put the team in a good mood for tomorrow."

Team Australia will next face China here on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, Friday, FS2). The Aussies are expected to be strong favorites in that one and could put themselves in solid position to reach the second round of play for the first time in national team history. It’s something that is not a surprise to captain Tim Kennelly, who homered in the game.

“If we don't expect to get to that next round, then all that hard work and that preparation means nothing,” Kennelly said earlier in the week. “Obviously to get through to Miami is our goal and our target. Once you get to Miami, you have a one-in-four chance. If you're already there, you might as well go all the way and win it.”

Two teams from Pool B will advance out of round-robin play into the single-elimination WBC quarterfinals next week, before the semifinals and final will be played in Miami.