Korea switches gears for semifinal

Stakes raised for win-or-go-home tilt with unfamiliar Venezuela

Saturday's starter Suk Min Yoon has not allowed a run in 9 2/3 innings of Classic play. (Getty Images)

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SAN DIEGO -- On Thursday, Korea took the field at PETCO Park against Japan for the fourth time in 12 days in a game its manager In Sik Kim admitted meant nothing.

Japan won, 6-2.

On Saturday, in a contest that means everything, the Koreans will face an unfamiliar Venezuela squad in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic at Dodger Stadium.

"They have home run hitters, I know that. [Miguel] Cabrera and [Magglio] Ordonez," Kim said. "These players are very good players, and our players will do our best to stay with them."

Victory on Saturday is the only option, because a loss means elimination for Korea. A win against Venezuela, on the other hand, will give the squad a shot at the Classic title on Monday against the winner of Sunday's game between Japan and the United States.

Expect Korea to be ready. The team is 5-2 in the tournament this year and 11-3 combined in World Baseball Classic play. Should the Asian squads meet again, this time in the final, Korea will know what to expect. Korea is 2-2 against Japan in this year's tournament and 4-3 against the the rival in Classic play.

Should the Americans win, Korea also knows versions of Team USA.

In six games against the United States since 1998, Korea has a 2-4 record. The team's most recent victory against the Americans came via a 7-3 win in the second round of the World Baseball Classic in 2006 and an 8-7 victory in a preliminary game at the Beijing Games last year.

By contrast, Korea is not nearly as familiar with the Venezuelan squad and has never faced a team made up of professional players from the South American country. The recent history between the two teams -- even on the amateur level -- is brief.

In the 2002 Intercontinental Cup in Cuba, Korea defeated a team from Venezuela, 9-2. In the 2007 Baseball World Cup in Taiwan, Korea topped Venezuela, 4-0.

Korea is not completely unprepared for Venezuela.

"Starting from April to October, every day we watch the Major League teams playing," Kim said. "We have seen them many times. We know which player is which and what kind of specialty. But we don't know everyone in detail."

Familiarity was not a problem Thursday against Japan. Korea jumped out to an early lead in the first inning on a ground-rule double by Hyun-Soo Kim. Japan answered with a home run by Seiichi Uchikawa off Korea starter Wonsam Jang to tie the game at 1. Later in the frame, Japanese first baseman Shuichi Murata scored on a base hit to right field by Yasuyuki Kataoka to push Japan ahead, 2-1.

Japan added three runs in the eighth inning to pull ahead, 5-2. In the ninth, Ichiro Suzuki led off the frame with a double and scored on a single by Norichika Aoki for Japan's final run.

Korea didn't mourn the loss. In the moments after the game, the Korean manager was more focused on the future than the past. He spoke frankly about the significance of the Pool 1 finale to his club.

"Today, we didn't put great meaning to winning or losing," Kim said. "We were saving some of the players that pitched in the winning games."

Kim said Suk Min Yoon will take the mound for Korea. Right-hander Carlos Silva is slated to take the mound for Venezuela.

But Kim wasn't completely correct. The game did mean something to the Korean faithful who followed them throughout the round this week, and his players recognized that fact. At the conclusion of Thursday's game, several Korean stars lined up near the first-base line, took off their hats and to bowed to their fans.

The next time they line up, Korea will be in uncharted territory against the Venezuelans.

"No matter what, we will do our best and we will play with them all the way to the last minute," Kim said.

Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.