SEOUL (AFP) – South Korea play surprise package Israel in the opening game of the World Baseball Classic on Monday, kicking off a 16-team tournament spread across four countries.
Japan, who are two-time winners, and Mexico are also hosting pools of four teams, along with the United States — who are looking for their first Classic title.
South Korea will look to avoid a slip-up against the Israelis at Gocheok Sky Dome and make up for their first-round exit in the last edition in 2013.
But the 2009 finalists will be wary of Israel, whose line-up is stacked with US-born professional players and who beat Britain and Brazil in qualifying.
South Korea also lost to Sangmu, a domestic minor league club, in a warm-up last week, prompting manager Kim In-Sik to cancel a rest day and schedule extra practice.
“We can’t afford to take a rest, with our hitters so out of sync,” said Kim, according to Yonhap news agency.
Japan play their first game against fellow heavyweights Cuba on Tuesday, opening a pool which also brackets China and Australia.
Two of four teams advance from first-round pools in Seoul, Tokyo, Miami and Guadalajara, Mexico, into second-round play at Tokyo and San Diego that will determine the four semi-finalists who play March 20-21 in Los Angeles.
Sixty-three former Major League Baseball all-stars, including 25 from last season, are involved, although many MLB players are missing.
Baseball’s birthplace, the United States, has never won the Classic, hurt by the unwillingness of many clubs to part with top players during pre-season workouts.
But with MLB unwilling to shut down its campaign for the Classic, the Americans must enlist whoever is available.
“It’s just getting the guys pumped up to be amped up a little earlier than they normally do,” US manager Jim Leyland said.
“That’s the good thing about it. It’s also the dangerous thing about it because they haven’t been in spring training all that long.”
Much effort is being made to expand the game, and MLB operates three development centres in China, hoping the American sport can gain a foothold there.
Designated hitter Xu Guiyan, the first player from China’s development programme to sign with an MLB side after joining the Baltimore Orioles organisation in 2015, will play for his homeland.
China also boast 12-year minor-league shortstop Ray Chang, whose parents emigrated to Kansas City and opened a restaurant.
He suffered a broken leg a day before he was to be called to play for Minnesota, missing his chance at an MLB game, and will retire after the Classic to manage a development centre in Nanjing, China.