Young Koreans ready to take on vets

Inexperienced team, winner in Beijing, two wins from Classic crown

Third baseman Bum Ho Lee leads the team with a .375 batting average and three home runs. (AP)

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LOS ANGELES -- Despite winning the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and finishing with the best record in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, Korea was hardly considered a favorite for the 2009 Classic.

After all, the team had just one Major League player on its roster -- Indians outfielder Shin-Soo Choo -- and other teams, such as the U.S., Venezuela, Japan and the Dominican Republic, had rosters littered with Major Leaguers. And of course, there was mighty Cuba, which had finished no worse than second in 50 consecutive international tournaments.

But Korea is 5-2 in the 2009 Classic and finds itself just two wins from the title, as it is in the semifinals with the U.S., Venezuela and Japan at Dodger Stadium.

And Korea has done it with a younger team that is missing some of its top veterans from 2006, such as Chan Ho Park and Seung-Yeop Lee, both of whom made the All-Tournament Team in 2006, when the club finished in third place. In addition, Choo is batting just .100.

"Three years ago, there were many experienced veteran players," manager In-Sik Kim said. "Compared to them, I would say they are younger, not as experienced. But most of them played in the Olympics, and we won."

Korea put up a perfect 9-0 record at the Olympics, but that was against amateur competition, and that's why Kim is excited to see how his team performs against rosters made up of Major Leaguers. Venezuela's roster features 21 Major Leaguers, Japan's roster features five and the entire U.S. roster is made up of big leaguers.

"We are meeting the world's best players," Kim said, "and we're very excited about that. We're excited about meeting with world-class players."

Korea is winning with pitching and defense, as the team has a 3.05 ERA and features a sharp and well-disciplined defense.

The offense is built on patience. Korea is batting just .251 as a team but has a .380 on-base percentage. That approach has certainly worked, as the team is fourth in the tournament in runs scored, with 40.

Third baseman Bum Ho Lee leads the team, with a .375 batting average and three home runs, and is second in RBIs, with six. First baseman Tae Kyun Kim is right behind him, with a .364 batting average and two home runs, as well as a team-high nine RBIs.

And although Korea is 11-3 in Classic play, dating back to the inaugural tournament, in 2006, Kim knows that his team is again the underdogs. Yet he said that his team is fine with that role. He was also humble when comparing his team with the other semifinalists, saying that Japan has the best pitching and that Team USA and Venezuela are the best hitting teams.

But he also said that his team isn't ready to back down, despite playing against some of the best in the world, even if his players have never played against most of their competitors.

"Of course, we may not know each other very well," he said. "However, the best team will have the best result and win. We believe it's a great challenge but that we can meet that challenge."

Rhett Bollinger is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.