SEOUL, Nov 22 (Reuters) - South Korea's chances of winning the World Baseball Classic (WBC) next year have suffered a major blow after key pitcher Bong Jung-keun was forced to withdraw with a shoulder injury.
Team officials said on Thursday the 32-year-old, who had spells with the Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds, was set to start four months of rehab on his left shoulder.
Bong, now with South Korean club LG Twins, played in both previous WBC tournaments, making three starts against Japan in 2009, winning two with an ERA of 0.51.
"We were counting on Bong to play an important role at the WBC," South Korean coach Yang Sang-moon told local media, adding that they would take no risks by forcing Bong to play.
"Now we're faced with some problems as far as operating our bullpen."
Bong underwent surgery in 2004 to insert two pins in his pitching shoulder and recent check-ups showed the pins had come out of position.
South Korea, who won Olympic gold in Beijing in 2008 in baseball's swansong at the Summer Games, face serious pitching problems with doubts also over Ryu Hyun-jin.
With Ryu in contract negotiations with the Los Angeles Dodgers, his agent Scott Boras has said the pitcher would not be available as he prepares for his first season in Major League Baseball.
The March 2-19 WBC clashes with Major League Baseball's spring training and top players from various nations have opted to sit out the tournament.
Both Bong and Ryu were included in South Korea's provisional 28-man squad named earlier this month.
"With Ryu Hyun-jin, we had our Plan B because there was a possibility that, if he signs a major league contract, his team wouldn't allow him to play at the WBC," said Yang.
"We weren't prepared for Bong's situation. Without him we will have to go back to the drawing board."
South Korea were expected to unveil their final WBC roster on Nov. 30.
Japan won the inaugural tournament in 2006 and defended their title in 2009, despite twice being beaten by fierce rivals South Korea.
Japan's biggest name Ichiro Suzuki, along with pitchers Yu Darvish and Hiroki Kuroda are among those who have already ruled themselves out of their team's quest for a WBC hat-trick.
Reporting by Alastair Himmer in Tokyo; Editing by Peter Rutherford