As league nears annual break, 2 players exceed expectations

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As league nears annual break, 2 players exceed expectations

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This weekend, the Korea Baseball Organization season takes its annual first-half breather with the All-Star Game. The season began with nationwide baseball fever thanks to the Korean team’s semifinal showing at the World Baseball Classic, but is staggering into the break with heavy rains during the monsoon season wiping out games. In the first half, two players carried the league with their pursuit of hallowed pitching and batting records.
Drafted out of high school, the Hanwha Eagles’ left-handed rookie starter Ryu Hyun-jin has taken the league by storm. After his first three starts, he had two double-digit strikeout games and a complete game, and has not looked back since. Listing all of his accomplishments could easily fill this page.
Midway through the season, hitters still haven’t figured out the precocious 19-year-old. He throws 151-kilometer (93-mile) per hour fastballs, complemented by nasty sliders and baffling changeups. Ryu’s offseason workout with his pitching coach Choi Dong-won, a fireballer from the ’80s, helped him adjust his arm angle to get maximum power from his surgically repaired throwing arm.
Through last weekend, Ryu led the league in wins with 12, in strikeouts with 127 and in earned run average with 2.17. He could become the first Korean pitcher to win the pitching triple crown, and with the Eagles in the playoff hunt, Ryu is also a strong candidate to capture the most valuable player award.
But when asked in a press conference after a recent game what his personal goals were for this season, Ryu said, “I just want to win the Rookie of the Year award. That’s about it.”
Should he win, Ryu would become the fifth straight pitcher to receive the top rookie honors in the league.
His durability remains a question mark, however. A typical high school season is a fraction of the professional one, with four national tournaments plus a series of regional qualifying matches for them spread over five months. And because of his great start, the Eagles have had to rely on Ryu to remain among the league’s top four eligible for the postseason.
Ryu has pitched 120 1/3 innings, the second most in Korean baseball. Ryu threw more than 100 pitches in 12 of his 17 starts, including a whopping 130 pitches against the Kia Tigers in 8 2/3 innings in June.
The concern almost became a reality last Friday, when Ryu started against the SK Wyverns but left the game after five shutout innings with tightness in his left biceps and triceps. The Eagles officials said they took Ryu out for precautionary reasons and added he will not miss any starts.
And the team should be mindful of his health: the Eagles, with their mediocre offense, will only go as far as Ryu can carry them.
On the hitting side, another young player is gunning for a triple crown, covering home runs, runs batted in and batting average.
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Listed at 192 centimeters (6-foot-4) and 100 kilograms (220 pounds), the Lotte Giants first baseman Lee Dae-ho is a giant in more than ways than one. The hulking 24-year-old has been known for only modest power in the past, but this season, Lee is working himself into position as the nation’s best hitter, period.
If Lee does become the triple crown winner, he wouldn’t be the first hitter to do so here. Lee Man-soo, currently the bullpen catcher with the Chicago White Sox, was the first (and last) to accomplish the feat in 1984.
Lee Dae-ho is fourth in batting average at .316, behind the Hyundai Unicorns’ Lee Taek-keun’s .333 but well above his career average of .261, and is tops in homers with 16, and in RBI with 52. A strenuous offseason training regimen helped the Giants’ Lee shed some weight and, according to his hitting coach, Kim Moo-gwan, gave him more flexibility to drive the ball.
In early October, the Giants paired Lee with a trainer and sent them off to a Buddhist temple on a mountain in South Gyeongsang province to stay for two months. His typical day ran from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.: He would climb the mountain, lift weights for a few hours and engage in batting practice in the evening. During the training period, Lee was on a strictly vegetarian diet.
Though the Korea Baseball Organization’s media guide listed Lee as weighing 100 kilograms last season, it was an open secret that he weighed at least 135 kilograms during the 2005 season. He is said to have lost some 15 kilograms over the winter.
After hitting his 16th home run against the Eagles last Thursday, Lee began the post-game press conference with a smile, saying, “From now on, I am not going to talk to reporters who ask me about my weight.”
The trimmed-down Lee has filled the huge void left by veteran Korean power hitters. Samsung Lions’ outfielder Shim Chong-soo, once a 50-homer man, has only played 12 games because of a knee injury. The Eagles’ first baseman Kim Tae-kyun, coming off three straight seasons of at least 20 home runs and 95 RBIs, is mired in a season-long slump, stuck at just four homers and 34 RBIs. Doosan Bears’ third baseman Kim Dong-joo, who averaged 22 long balls in his eight-year career, dislocated his shoulder while sliding headfirst into first base during the World Baseball Classic, and has not played this season.
With the Giants in seventh place and 7.5 games out of the last playoff spot, Lee is one of few bright spots for the raucous home fans in Busan.


by Yoo Jee-ho
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