Korea stays alive with win over Czech Republic

March 12th, 2023

TOKYO -- Korea’s World Baseball Classic dreams were almost dashed. Through two games, its pitchers had given up eight runs in a loss to Australia, and another 13 runs in the defeat against Japan – using an astonishing 10 pitchers along the way.

Facing the surprising and powerful Czech Republic offense here on Sunday, the Koreans needed outs. They turned to Lotte Giants’ right-hander Se-Woong Park and a very specific game plan: throw breaking balls.

It worked in Korea’s must-win 7-3 victory. It kept the country’s slim hopes alive to advance to the knockout stage – as long as Australia doesn’t win one more game.

Though Australia (2-0) holds the tiebreaker against Korea (1-2), there could be a three-way tie for runner-up in Pool B with Korea, Australia, and the Czech Republic (1-2). They would then be ranked by which club had the fewest runs divided by the number of defensive outs recorded in the games played between the three clubs.

The Korea win did guarantee that no one other than Australia or Japan (3-0) could win three games, ensuring that Japan would be moving to the quarterfinals as either Pool B's winner or runner-up.

“They swing hard at 95-plus mph fastballs,” Korea manager Kang-Chul Lee said about the Czech Republic’s hitters before the game. “But at the same time, they are not good at making contact with breaking balls. Overall, their baseball skill is way better than we thought.”

Park relied on his slider and changeup to keep the Czech batters off-balance. He tossed 4 2/3 innings and struck out eight batters. It took until Martin Cervenka’s double in the top of the fifth before the European nation recorded its first base hit.

"The starting pitcher, Se-Woong Park, did a tremendous job with the responsibility [in a must-win game]," Lee said afterward. "Thanks to him, because he pitched great, we could get a win."

With Park pitching masterfully, Korea was able to open up an early 6-0 lead in the second inning against reigning Czech Baseball Extraliga Pitcher of the Year Lukas Ercoli. Though few of Korea’s hits in the first two frames were hard-hit against the southpaw curveball specialist, they found holes, popped out of gloves, or took rough hops before bouncing into the outfield.

Manager Pavel Chadim liked having a left-hander go up against Korea. He also pointed to Ercoli's previous performance at the Regensburg, Germany, qualifier where he had defeated France in a must-win game as reasons for giving him the ball.

"Maybe he will show us [his talents] in the European Championship medal game," Chadim said about this fall's upcoming tournament that the nation is hosting.

The Czech Republic battled – scoring two runs in the seventh and adding another in the eighth -- but couldn’t complete the comeback.

Former Twins Major Leaguer ByungHo Park recorded two hits and Padres shortstop Ha-Seong Kim knocked two home runs in the victory. Korea will now hope for Australia to lose to Japan here on Sunday and will need to defeat China (0-3) on Monday for a chance of reaching the quarterfinals.

"Baseball in China has improved from previous tournaments," Lee said. "They have a great bullpen and they have power on the offense, but this is a must-win game for us, so no matter what it takes, we'll get a win."

"Like the manager said, I'll do my best and get the win," Kim echoed.

The Czech team will also be rooting for Japan to keep its own qualification dreams alive. Jeffrey Barto, who had planned on retiring from baseball to be the pitching coach for the Trebic Nuclears in 2021, saved CR’s bullpen for the final game of the tournament against Australia. He tossed 5 2/3 innings, allowing just a Kim home run to mar his day.

"It was one of the best games that I’ve seen from him," Chadim said of the U.S.-born pitcher. "He’s a Czech guy [now]. He has a Czech child, a Czech wife. He has played here for a long a time. I was so proud of him and so happy for him."

The good news for the Czech Republic? Thanks to holding the head-to-head tiebreaker with China, they have a good chance at qualifying for the 2026 World Baseball Classic tournament -- one of the club's stated goals when arriving in Tokyo. It depends on what happens the rest of the way in Pool B.

But with a chance at going further this time around, Chadim wants to grab it.

"One last game. We are not finished,” Chadim says at the end of his press conference. “I hope I’m not up here alone.”

The losing team only sends its manager. The winning one gets to bring along its players, too.