It’s a 3-for-1 battle for last playoff spotWith about 20 games left in the Korean baseball season, the battle for the last playoff berth is sizzling.
Through Monday, the Kia Tigers held down the final spot, in fourth with 49 wins, 50 losses and three ties. However, the SK Wyverns and the Doosan Bears were only a half-game back.
The Wyverns, having played nine more games than the Bears because of rainouts during the monsoon season, were five wins ahead of Doosan, and one-thousandth of a point ahead in winning percentage.
The defending champs Samsung Lions, at 62-39-3, control first place, six games ahead of the Hyundai Unicorns. The Hanwha Eagles are 7.5 games back of the Lions, but also 4.5 ahead of the Tigers. The three are all but assured of a postseason ticket.
Here's what lies ahead for the three clubs battling for the final playoff spot.
The Tigers might have the toughest schedule the rest of the way. The team lost two of three against the rival Wyverns over the weekend, and Kia faces the Unicorns three times this season. The Tigers' head-to-head record against Hyundai is 4-11.
The Tigers also have five games left against another competitor, the Bears, including a doubleheader on Sept. 17. Then there are six games against the Lotte Giants, who have taken seven of 12 games versus the Tigers, who close out the season against Lotte with a four-game series at home.
The key to the Tigers' postseason aspirations will be their pitching. Right-handed starter Kim Jin-woo, out since Aug. 20 with pain in his pitching shoulder, made his comeback start yesterday.
“I am pain-free now,” Kim told the local sports daily Sports Chosun on Sunday. “And my biggest goal is to make up for the time I've missed by putting our team into the playoffs.”
The team was also buoyed by the return of right-hander Lee Dae-jin. The 32-year-old Lee, a top-flight starter in the mid-1990s, had three shoulder operations between 1999 and 2004. He had pitched in the minor leagues since the spring of 2004 before making his return on Sunday.
Though he allowed a two-run homer in one inning pitched in relief, Lee wasn't too down afterward.
“It's going to take me some time to get back to where I was before, and today was a start,” Lee told Yonhap News Sunday evening. “I am happy to be back on the mound. Given what I've gone through the last two years [in rehab], I just want to have fun pitching again.”
Then there is the rookie Han Ki-joo. He has not quite lived up to the preseason billing as a flame-throwing starter, but has turned in some nice work in relief.
Since being sent to the bullpen on Aug. 6, Han, the 19-year-old first overall pick out of high school this spring, has had three wins and a save. He had a 12-inning scoreless streak from Aug. 9 to Aug. 29, giving up just two base hits and two walks.
“I feel much less pressure coming out of the bullpen than starting games,” Han told Yonhap News in late August. “I've also made some adjustments to the different strike zone in the pros [compared to high school].”
The Wyverns have played the most games in the league, 109, and thus have the smallest margin for error down the stretch. The team has four games against the last-place LG Twins, against whom SK has only a 4-8 season record. The Wyverns play the front-runner Lions three times, after going 3-12 against them. SK can only hope that the Lions, should they clinch the first place in a few days, will rest some of their top players later this month.
SK had a 15-10 record for August, second best in the league, and so it has momentum on its side. Outfielder Lee Jin-young, a career .300 hitter whose average hovered around .270 through July, hit .322 in August. Starter Chei Byung-yong went 5-1 with 3.32 earned run average in six August starts. He is 7-5 on the year with 2.85 ERA.
Determined to ride hot hands, the Wyverns started Chei on three days’ rest for the first time this season last weekend. Chei faced the Twins on Aug. 30, and then was back on the mound against the Tigers Sunday.
He responded by pitching 12 2/3 scoreless innings in those two games, giving up four hits and striking out nine.
“I feel great,” Chei told the team’s official Web site. “This is not the time of the year to take it easy. I am ready to pitch whenever my team wants me to.”
After Sunday’s tilt, the Wyverns manager told reporters in a post-game press conference, “Chei actually had better stuff today than he did in the previous start. He was a tremendous help for us when we needed him the most.”
The Bears have 24 more games crammed in until Oct. 2 to make up for previously rained-out games against southern teams. The schedule includes three doubleheaders, and five games against the rival Tigers. The Bears have 5-7-1 record against the Tigers this year.
The Bears also play seven times against the seventh-place Giants, over which they have a 6-2 edge so far this season.
Doosan recently welcomed third baseman and cleanup hitter, Kim Dong-joo, back to the lineup. He hadn’t played yet this season with a shoulder injury suffered during the World Baseball Classic in March. Then late last month, right-handed starter Park Myung-hwan returned from a shoulder injury that forced him to miss a month of action.
“We’ll ease Park into the rotation by first putting him in the setup man’s role for a bit,” said the Bears manager Kim Kyung-moon told the local online sports magazine Joynews 24. “Now that we have those guys [Kim and Park] back on our active roster, we’re ready to take control in the stretch drive.”
by Yoo Jee-ho