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Injury-hit South Korea target Classic crown

(Reuters) - Bridesmaids at the World Baseball Classic in 2009, South Korea can overcome injuries and the absence of their Major League players to go one better at this year's tournament, coach Ryu Joong-il said on Tuesday.

South Korea, gold medalists at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, would rely on team spirit to take the title at the March 2-19 WBC, Ryu told reporters at a news conference in Seoul.

"Expectations will be high on this team, because we've done so well at the previous WBC tournaments," he said.

"If our players put their country ahead of themselves, and our veterans and youngsters can come together as a team, then I believe we will post an even better result this time."

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin and outfielder Choo Shin-soo of the Cincinnati Reds have opted out of the WBC, but Lee said their absence would not derail their chances.

"Our greatest strength is our teamwork," said Lee, as the Koreans unveiled their new-look uniform on Tuesday, a no-button number designed to prevent chafing and cuts when players slide head-first into bases.

"When people say we're not a strong team, it will only motivate us to play well."

South Korea were beaten 5-3 by Japan in a nail-biting 2009 final at Dodger Stadium, in a game which had millions glued to their televisions early in the morning in both countries.

That crushing defeat came less than a year after South Korea beat Cuba 3-2 in the gold medal game in Beijing.

Ryu was head coach in 2009 and also at the inaugural WBC in 2006 when they beat Japan twice in pool play before a heavy 6-0 loss by their fierce rivals in the semi-finals ended their bid.

"The 2006 WBC has stayed with me for a long time," first baseman Lee Seung-yeop told Yonhap news. "It gnaws at me to this day that we couldn't reach the final because we lost to Japan.

"I don't want to go through the same pains again this year," added the veteran slugger, who led the 2006 tournament with five home runs and 10 runs batted in.

South Korea, who will submit their final 28-man roster on February 20, face Netherlands, Australia and Taiwan in Pool B in the opening round this year, which is to be played in Taiwan.

Ryu has already had to replace several key pitchers.

Left-handers Bong Jung-keun and Kim Kwang-hyun are out with shoulder injuries, while relievers Hong Sang-sam and Kim Jin-woo are also sidelined with knocks.

Despite being depleted by injury, South Korea are keen to exorcise the demons of the 2009 final, decided after extra innings.

Second baseman Jeong Keun-woo, who struck out against Yu Darvish to end the game, said: "I don't have fond memories of 2009.

"This time I want to end it on a better note and plant our national flag on the mound when we clinch the championship."

(Reporting by Alastair Himmer in Tokyo; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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