Kia Tigers looking fierce in KBO preseason

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Kia Tigers looking fierce in KBO preseason

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Kim Joo-chan, left, is congratulated by his teammates after he scored on a single by Na Ji-wan in the first inning of an exhibition game against the NC Dinos in Changwon yesterday. The Tigers won 7-5. By Lee Ho-hyung

The Kia Tigers, the holder of the most titles in the Korea Baseball Organization, are showing signs of awakening from their slumber with the opening of the 2013 season less than two weeks away.

The Gwangju-based franchise beat the NC Dinos 7-5 in Changwon, South Gyeongsang yesterday, giving them 5 victories and one loss in their six preseason games. The victory makes Kia the sole leader of the league, squeezing out the Doosan Bears, who tied the Hanwha Eagles 2-2 yesterday.

The season so far appears to be a departure from the Tigers’ mediocre record last season. They had four victories, five losses and three ties in the 2012 preseason, which put them fifth. They eventually also finished fifth in the regular season.

Kia has five more exhibitions, one a day through Sunday. Each of the nine KBO teams will play 12 preseason games. The Tigers’ home game with the SK Wyverns on March 13 was rained out.

With eight titles, the Tigers ruled the league in its first two decades, but have managed to add only one in the last 10 years. The team advanced to the playoffs only twice in the five past seasons, including when it won the Korean Series in 2009.

This year, many observers say that it will be the Tigers that pose the strongest threat to the Samsung Lions, the two-time defending champions. The Lions are only 2-2 from seven preseason games, and drew the other three.

Before yesterday’s game, the Tigers recorded a 0.261 team batting average, the second-highest among the nine clubs during the preseason. The club also led the league with a 0.384 on-base percentage, and a 0.414 slugging percentage. Last year, the Tigers were at the bottom for the last stat.

Its cleanup trio - Lee Bum-ho, Choi Hee-seop and Kim Sang-hyeon - have recovered from injuries or slumps that put them out of the lineup for significant periods. Choi went 0.333 in the past five games, recording two RBIs including a homer.

Kim Joo-chan, who moved from the Lotte Giants after the 2012 season on a four-year, 5 billion won ($4.5 million) free agent contract, is proving to be half of a formidable table setting duo with leadoff Lee Yong-kyu. Kim went 0.429 in preseason games, having six hits in 14 at-bats. Only the Twins’ Park Yong-taek is ahead of him, with 0.462.

The Tigers have also committed fewer errors. Last year, they committed 88 errors, the second-highest next to the LG Twins last year. This year, the position players haven’t committed any so far.

“I was worried that we struggled in spring training,” Tigers manager Sun Dong-yul said. The Tigers had a 46-day overseas training session, first in Arizona and then in Okinawa. During that time, it had 13 exhibition games and lost nine, drawing once.

“I feel good that we are doing well in the exhibition games, better than I thought,” Sun said.

Pitching is also shaping up, the starting rotation in particular.

Ace Yoon Suk-min (9-8) and Kim Jin-woo (10-5) are expected to return soon from injuries. Yoon was put on a disabled list after leading Team Korea during the World Baseball Classic, complaining of pain in his left shoulder. Kim has recovered from a similar ailment.

Manager Sun is also pinning his hopes to Yang Hyeon-jong, who had 28 victories in two years through 2010 before going into a slump for the last two years. He went 7-9 in 2011 with a 6.18 ERA and 1-2 last year with a 5.05 ERA. Yang pitched five no-hit innings against the Hanwha Eagles on March 9, but he was shaky against the Bears on Sunday, surrendering five runs on seven hits over four innings.

The Tigers could find more room for improvement in the bullpen.

“Kia is a strong candidate to win the league along with Samsung. But they have fewer credible mid relievers than Samsung,” said Lee Hyo-bong, a baseball commentator. “They need to find talent to safeguard the bullpen among rookies like Park Ji-hoon, who they successfully discovered.”

Park (3-3) went with a 3.38 ERA while pitching 71 1/3 innings in 50 games. This year, the 23-year-old right-hander will be joined by Park Kyung-tae, Jin Hae-soo, Yoo Dong-hoon and Choi Hyang-nam in the bullpen. Anthony Lerew, a former Major Leaguer who went 1-7 for the Tigers last season, also moved to the bullpen.

The Tigers will play against the Nexen Heroes on the opening day of the regular season, March 30.


By Moon Gwang-lip, Seo Ji-young [joe@joongang.co.kr]
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