Lions roaring again as playoffs nearIt hasn’t always been an easy ride, but the Samsung Lions have got the job done once again.
The defending Korean Series champion clinched first place in the Korean Baseball Organization regular season standings for the second consecutive year on Friday. It was the fourth regular season title in the last six seasons for the Lions, who are gunning for their third championship. The first-place winner gets a bye to the Korean Series, which begins Oct. 21. Samsung awaits the winner of two playoff rounds.
Manager Sun Dong-yol said before the season that his goal for the month of April was for the team to win half its games. The Lions had sent six players, including two pitchers, to the World Baseball Classic in March, and they weren’t expected to be ready to play at full strength right away when they returned.
In the spring, the Lions were dealing with other offseason injuries: former closer Lim Chang-yong hadn’t recovered from his “Tommy John” ligament reconstruction surgery, and one-time 50-homer slugger Shim Chong-soo also began the season hurt. He hit only .132 in the first 12 games before opting for operations on his knee and shoulder.
But the Lions hung on with a 10-7-1 record in the first month, second-best in the league. Oh Seung-hwan, a sophomore coming off the most valuable player performance in the championship series last year, got eight saves in the month alone, setting the tone for what became a record-breaking season. Oh now has the all-time Korean single season mark of 47.
On the hitting side, the rejuvenation of the veteran designated hitter Yang Jun-hyuk carried the team from the outset. Following his worst statistical season in 2005 (career lows in average, home runs, runs batted in, hits and slugging percentage), Yang got off to a solid start this year, hitting .346 in April. He finished second in the league in RBI at 81.
Other hitters picked up the slack and Samsung was firmly entrenched atop the standings by June. Shortstop Park Jin-man and catcher Jin Kap-yong put up big numbers in the dog days of the summer, and first baseman Kim Han-soo, as the cleanup hitter, started driving in runs after bringing home just two RBI in April. On Aug. 18, the Lions were ahead of the second-place Hyundai Unicorns by 8.5 games.
An airtight team defense also helped, led by perennial Golden Glove candidates Park, the shortstop, and centerfielder Park Han-yi. Samsung had 76 errors, the fewest in the league.
The Lions weren’t immune from the injury bug, though, and it bit them with the regular season winding down.
On Sept. 3, first baseman Kim sprained his left foot while sliding into second base, and hasn’t played since. Then on Sept. 21, catcher Jin tore his left hamstring in a slide into second base. The team’s second-leading hitter is still recovering. Infielders Park Jong-ho and Kim Jae-gul also battled through minor injuries and missed games in September.
Then the Unicorns made a charge, closing within a game on Sept. 24. The Lions breathed easier after two consecutive wins over the Lotte Giants and the LG Twins, combined with the Unicorns’ two straight losses after Sept. 24. The Lions were off the day they clinched the regular season title. It happened when Hyundai lost to the Hanwha Eagles on Friday.
Manager Sun is now the first person to win regular season titles in his first two years as a manager. As the undisputed finest pitcher in Korean baseball history, he has also defied the age-old sports adage that great athletes don’t make good coaches.
“This year was a lot tougher than last year because of all these injuries,” Sun told reporters in a conference call after the Lions clinched. “Also, the Unicorns’ last-minute charge was pretty daunting, but our players and coaches were able to maintain their focus and get the job done.”
The sophomore manager received some good news over the weekend. Kim and Jin will be available for the Korean Series, Sun said before the game against the Unicorns on Sunday. The manager added, “We’ve not been able to send out our best lineup because of injuries, but it looks as though we won’t have such problems come the playoffs.”
Also, Lim, the pitcher who had the surgery, pitched two innings in relief against the Unicorns Monday, and got the victory.
“If he can give us one good inning ― no more, no less ― in the Korean Series, then I’d be elated,” Sun told the sports daily Sports Chosun on Sunday.
Other than to get injured players healthy, Sun has to keep the healthy ones in game shape because there are nearly 20 days off between the Lions’ last regular season game and the first game of the Korean Series. To prepare, the manager said he would “play more simulated games, five or six, compared to four last year,” according to the paper Sports Khan.
The manager was confident that his team could take on whoever reaches the Korean Series. For instance, despite its 8-10 head-to-head record against the Unicorns, Sun said, “The records from the season are just reference points.” Samsung was 11-7 versus third-seeded Eagles, and 7-9-2 against fourth-placed Kia Tigers.
“During the season, your head-to-head record against a team depends heavily on how your starters rotate, who starts against whom,” Sun told Sports Chosun. “But in the Korean Series, we get to match the other team’s lineup with our best starters rotating. It will be a different story.”
For the best-of-seven game series, Samsung will roll out a three-man rotation of Tim Harikkala, Jamie Brown and Bae Young-soo. Harikkala was the team leader with 12 victories, followed by Brown’s 11. Bae, the 2004 league MVP, has been pitching with a sore elbow all year, and made some relief appearances as the coaches tried to lessen the toll on his arm.
by Yoo Jee-ho