Kia Tigers dreaming of a worst-to-first turnaroundA storied franchise in the Korea Baseball Organization is making a second-half charge on the strength of its starting pitching, after finishing in last place last year.
Since the All-Star weekend on July 22, the Kia Tigers have gone 8-4 and climbed into fourth place, a half-game ahead of the Doosan Bears as of Tuesday. The top four regular season teams advance to the playoffs. The first-place team gets a bye all the way to the Korean Series, while the second-place team advances to the second round, where it plays the winner of the best-of-three match pitting the third-ranked team against the fourth-place team.
The Tigers had 39 wins, 39 losses and three ties through Tuesday. Last year, the team finished at 49-76-1, in the cellar for the first time in the team’s history. The Tigers have a record nine championships in the league’s 25-year history.
The Tigers are charging behind their starting pitchers.
No. 1 starter Seth Greisinger has won his first two second-half starts, allowing just two earned runs in 16 innings pitched. Kim Jin-woo, a former No. 1 starter, returned from the disabled list with a victory over the Bears last Wednesday, his first win since May 25. Jeong Byung-doo, a former setup man, has four wins in two months as a starter and boasts a 2.56 earned run average in his new role.
Then there is Han Ki-joo, the highly touted rookie out of high school, whom the Tigers picked first overall in the draft and signed to a rookie-record 1-billion-won ($1.04 million) signing bonus. Han stumbled out of the gate, losing five out of his first seven starts. At the same time, less-heralded rookie Ryu Hyun-jin of the Hanwha Eagles notched two double-digit strikeout games in his first three starts. The much-anticipated rookie race is all but over, with Ryu looking to become Korean baseball’s first triple-crown winner, by leading the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA.
Seo Jung-hwan, manager of the Tigers, blasted Han in a pre-game press conference in July. Han lasted only 2/3 of an inning in that start, and was sent to the minors afterward. Seo said the 19-year-old pitcher “has fallen way short of our expectations,” and added, “We have no idea whether he will become the pitcher we expect him to be. He will need some serious off-season training.”
Han is back with the Tigers. On July 28, Han limited the SK Wyverns to two runs in six innings, and then kept the Bears in check for two runs in seven innings on Thursday. Though both starts were no-decisions, Han, who spent two weeks in July in the minors, looked comfortable throwing his 93-mile-per-hour fastball.
The only fourth-place team to win the championship was the 1999 Eagles. Can the Tigers pull off the feat?
They say pitching and defense win in the playoffs. If the Tigers ever get there, they will likely have one part down.
by Yoo Jee-ho