Eyes of Latin America upon Venezuela
Players enter semifinals knowing little to nothing about Korean opponent
By Jesse Sanchez / MLB.com
Endy Chavez, Magglio Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera chatted in the area behind the batting cage, twirling their bats and strapping on their batting gloves. Melvin Mora waited in the wings, and Bobby Abreu whacked pitches into the outfield.
They rotated in and out of the cage, just like every big league player does every day at every ballpark in the Major Leagues. They joked between pitches, and everything seemed normal.
Everything is not as it seems.
On Saturday, when the Venezuelans square off against Korea in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic, they will do so with the weight of their country on their shoulders and the eyes of Latin America upon them.
They will take the field knowing little to nothing about their opponent and with Carlos Silva, arguably the second-best pitcher on the team behind Felix Hernandez, on the mound. This is not just another game for Venezuela, even if that's how the players are approaching it.
"What we know is that [the Koreans] play good baseball," Abreu said. "We just have to play our game. I can tell you right now that we can't be overconfident. They are here for a reason."
The few scouting reports available on the opponent are in. The Venezuelans expect Korea to do everything well, because what they have seen on television is a well-rounded team. What the Venezuelans have heard more than once is that Korea has a tendency to play "small ball" and that the pitchers sometimes throw with funny arm angles.
Those descriptions are not completely accurate. Korea has hit eight home runs in this tournament, and only two of its pitchers, Kwang Hyun Kim and Chang Yong Lim, have an unorthodox delivery.
But it's hard to blame the Venezuelans for being curious. The two countries have only faced each other twice since 2002, and those games were on the amateur level.
"It's our first time to be at this level, so the experience is new," Chavez said. "But we have a lot of talent. They have good hitters, but we have good pitching, too. We score a couple of runs, and we will be fine."
Manager Luis Sojo is just as confident. He does not know the names of the Korean players, but he has idea of what their lineup looks like. Just like his players, he's never seen Korean starter Suk-Min Yoon pitch in person.
Sojo still expects to win on Saturday.
"I saw the Korean games [on television], and offensively, we really need to be aware of the fourth batter [Tae Kyun Kim]. He is very strong," Sojo said. "I think he is going through a very good offensive period. But obviously, the first batter, the second batter, those are the ones that work the count to 3-2, and when they are on bases, they do the small things. We really need to be very aware of each and every one of them, because there is no tomorrow for any of the two teams."
Here's what Venezuela knows for sure: Korea has rolled through the tournament thus far, posting a 5-2 record. Overall, Korea is 11-3 in two World Baseball Classics. In this tournament, Venezuela is 6-1, with its only loss coming to Team USA in the first round.
"Both the Koreans and Japanese, and all of the Asian teams come to the field and really play hard," Mora said. "Our disadvantage is that we have not seen them. Their disadvantage is that they have not seen us. That is actually our advantage. We don't know each other all that well."
Unfamiliarity is not the only issue at play. In addition to playing in front of a divided fan base, Venezuela has the added responsibility of being the only team from Latin America remaining in the tournament.
Abreu described representing Latin America as an honor, not a burden.
"I've said that in a tournament as important as this one, there is no easy opponent," Sojo said. "And the Asian teams throughout the years continue to improve. This is our world tournament. Everybody is talking about Korea being a team that can be in the finals. So we need to respect that, and we are aware of that."
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.