1st half of crazy KBO season wraps up as defending champs, foreign pitchers shine
The defending champions are back in a familiar place, and foreign pitchers have dominated local hitters as the topsy-turvy first-half of the season in the nation's top baseball competition came to a close this week.
The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) will enjoy the annual All-Star break this weekend, and in the 133-game season, each of the eight clubs has played between 75 and 80 games.
The Samsung Lions, the 2011 champs, are in first place with 45 wins, 31 losses and two draws. It's the same spot they occupied at the end of the last regular season before winning the championship Korean Series. The Lotte Giants, second in the regular season last year, are trailing by four games.
The Lions closed out their first half by coming from a 5-0 deficit to beat the Hanwha Eagles 6-5 in extra innings on Thursday. That victory, said Samsung manager Ryu Joong-il, epitomized the kind of season the Lions have enjoyed.
"Our players never gave up, and I think that showed we've got some major momentum behind us," Ryu said. "I wish the season ended after a couple of games."
Two non-playoff teams from 2011 are next. The Nexen Heroes, the worst team last year, are in contention this year in third at 40-36 and two ties, leading the fourth-place Doosan Bears by half a game.
Top four teams progress to the postseason in the KBO. The first-place club gets the bye to the Korean Series, and the second-place team advances straight to the second round, where they face the winner of the opening round between No. 3 and No. 4 clubs.
The Lions are in good shape to reach their second straight Korean Series. Down in sixth place as recently as June 19, the Lions quickly turned things around as their pitchers recovered dominant form. They took first place on July 1.
The Heroes, the perennial league doormat since their inception in 2008, have been the biggest surprise so far, having consistently remained in the playoff picture. The cash-strapped team had to trade some of their best players for money in recent seasons. But the Heroes signed their former star outfielder Lee Taek-keun as a free agent from the LG Twins, while their power-hitting shortstop Kang Jung-ho has developed into a five-tool, MVP-caliber superstar.
The 25-year-old slugger leads the KBO with 19 home runs, only four shy of his career high set three years ago. He is also at or near the top in other major offensive categories, including batting average, runs batted in (RBI), runs scored, hits, doubles, slugging percentage and on-base percentage. Flashing his usual solid glove at a premium position, Kang has also stolen 15 bases.
Kim Si-jin, the Heroes' manager said Kang's emergence in the heart of the order has been the biggest reason for the team's early success.
"We were fortunate not to have players sit out with major injuries," Kim said. "If we can stay healthy, I think we can keep this up."
The SK Wyverns have been as much of a disappointment as the Heroes have been a pleasant surprise. The Wyverns have been to the last five Korean Series and have won three titles since 2007. But they find themselves in sixth place, only one game above .500 in winning percentage.
Beset by injuries to key starting and bullpen pitchers, the Wyverns suffered their season-worst eight-game losing skid earlier this month to drop out of the top four for the first time all season.
Still, the Wyverns are far from out of contention. With 55 games left on their season, they are 6.5 games behind first place and just one game out of the fourth and the final playoff spot.
It has been such a tight season that at one point, only one game separated a second-place and a sixth-ranked club.
But the Eagles have missed out on the party. Despite the addition of former Major League Baseball (MLB) All-Star Park Chan-ho and the return of the franchise star Kim Tae-kyun from a stint in Japan, the Eagles sputtered out of the gate and have been stuck in the last place since mid-April.
Those two have done their part. Kim ended the first half hitting .398 while displaying his usual power stroke. Park, 39, has relied on guile to post a 3.77 earned run average (ERA) put together six quality starts of at least six innings pitched and three or fewer earned runs allowed.
Park and Kim are among those who came home this year after playing overseas. The Lions welcomed back their former MVP-winning slugger Lee Seung-yeop, who had played eight seasons in Japan. The move has paid huge dividends, as Lee has challenged Kang of the Heroes in all power categories.
Kim Byung-hyun, another ex-MLB All-Star, joined the Heroes this offseason after a year in Japan. But the Heroes are in fourth in spite of Kim, not because of him. He has a 2-3 record and a 5.30 ERA in 37 2/3 innings.
Kim is far from the only local pitcher to struggle this year. Yoon Seok-min, last year's MVP for the Kia Tigers, is only 5-4 so far and has been slowed by inflamed right elbow. Ryu Hyun-jin, left-handed ace for the Eagles, is just 3-5 and was rocked for eight earned runs in two innings in his final first-half start Wednesday, the most runs he's ever given up in a game.
Foreign pitchers have ruled the mound so far. Of four starters with an ERA under 3.00, three are from overseas: Brandon Knight of the Heroes, Shane Youman of the Giants and Ben Jukich of the Twins.
Since 1998, KBO teams have been allowed to carry two foreign players apiece, and this is the first season in which all 16 imports are pitchers.
These former MLB or U.S. minor league pitchers have been big inning eaters, too. The top five pitchers in innings pitched are all foreigners, led by Dustin Nippert of the Bears. (Yonhap)