Unlikely names help Lions turn it around

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Unlikely names help Lions turn it around

At the end of April, defending champions Samsung Lions were mired in sixth place among the nine Korea Baseball Organization teams, with a record of 11-10.

This despite a pitching staff that was second in the league in team ERA (4.23) and a lineup that was hitting .279 as a team, good enough for fifth place.

May has been another story. The Lions have come roaring back, winning 11 of 15 games this month, while losing just one with three ties.

And as of Monday, they were back in their familiar first-place spot with a .629 winning percentage.

Their biggest hole was at catcher after veteran Jin Gap-yong was sidelined by an injured right elbow, with backup Lee Ji-young unavailable because of an injury he sustained in the March 30 season opener.

But catcher Lee Heung-ryun, who is in his second year in the KBO, stepped in and performed far better than many had expected.

“Lee definitely is the one who stabilized the Lions,” said analyst Lee Soon-chul. “We all know how important the catcher position is in baseball, but when I see the 25-year-old behind home plate, I don’t miss Jin or Lee anymore. If Lee [Ji-young] comes back in better shape, Manager Ryu Joong-il will have a happy conundrum over whom should start as catcher.”

Lee Heung-ryun is hitting only .218, but the analyst said that is not an issue because he only needs to hit eighth and most of the offense is provided by Dominican Republic import Yamaico Navarro, slugger Choi Hyung-woo, third baseman Park Suk-min, DH Chae Tae-in and first baseman Lee Seung-yeop.

“If the catcher struggled in the past month, the Lions might have had more serious problems, but he was calm and didn’t make many mistakes on the field,” the analyst said. “Not many people know that it isn’t an easy role to fill for a young catcher like Lee.”

The other player who has led the Lions on their May rebound is Lee Seung-yeop.

“All teams have their leaders in the clubhouse or in the dugout, but it is sometimes difficult for us to tell whether they are good leaders or not,” the analyst said. “But when I saw Lee leading other players in the dugout, I was able to see the Lions becoming united as a team. He had some clutch hits recently and has also been a cheerleader in the dugout. It sounds a lot harder than it is, especially for older veterans like Lee, who is 38.”

Lee was hitting .298 with four home runs and 21 RBIs through Monday.

BY Kwon sang-soo [sakwon80@joongang.co.kr]

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