Battle for best KBO closer heating up

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Battle for best KBO closer heating up


In modern baseball, good closing pitchers are critical because they lock in wins. Among the closers in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) league, a rookie is on his way to becoming this season’s best.

As of Tuesday, the NC Dinos’ Lim Chang-min tops in saves at 28. He is followed by the Samsung Lions’ Lim Chang-yong and the Kia Tigers’ Yoon Suk-min, who both have 26 saves. The Nexen Heroes’ Son Seung-lak, looking for his third consecutive saves title, is fourth at 21.

With only about 20 games left this season, the race for best closer is coming to an end. But it seems that Dinos right-hander Lim, who is playing full-time closer for the first time, could keep his lead.

Lim is already the most cost-efficient closer. His salary this year is only 87 million won ($73,000), far less than Yoon (1.25 billion won), Son (530 million won) and Lim Chang-yong (500 million).

Lim Chang-min, who joined the Dinos in late 2012 from the Heroes through a trade, was originally a relief pitcher. But after the team’s closing pitcher Kim Jin-sung was ruled out last April with a calf injury, he took over the role and has been sealing victories for the Dinos ever since.

Baseball pundits say that on any given team, the closer should be the pitcher who is the most focused, as well as the boldest, because their job is to keep the club’s lead small until the very end.

Lim has been carrying out his job with lots of guts.

He currently leads the league in “tough saves” at six. A tough save refers to when a closing pitcher appears on the mound with runners on the base who can either even the score or put the other team ahead, but doesn’t let one through. The 30-year-old also leads in save percentage, collecting 28 from 31 opportunities.

“When runners are in a scoring position, I feel more comfortable pitching,” Lim said. “In that kind of situation, it’s obvious what batters want to get from me. So I just have to focus on pitching accurately.”

Lim’s top contender is Lim Chang-yong, who plays for the defending champion and league No. 1 Lions.

The 39-year-old sidearm pitcher is looking for his fourth saves title in the KBO. He previously won in 1998 with the Haitai Tigers (now the Kia Tigers) and in 1999 and 2004 with the Lions.

On Aug. 16, the Lions’ Lim, a former player for the Yakult Swallows and Chicago Cubs, became the second Korean to have 350 saves in his professional career. In Japan with the Swallows, he had 128 saves over five seasons.

After ending his seven-year stint overseas, Lim returned to the KBO last year and collected 31 saves, which was just one save shy of topping Son’s record for the season.

“After returning from the U.S. last year, Lim relied too much on his fastball, but his pitching patterns have changed after he suffered some blown saves” said former LG Twins manager Lee Soon-chul, now a commentator for SBS Sports. “Now, batters are troubled if he mixes in the slider occasionally.”

The Tigers’ Yoon, 29, returned from the United States this year after playing in the minor leagues. Though he was signed to the Baltimore Orioles in Major League Baseball, he never made it onto the roster.

Although many thought the right-hander would play as a starter, the 2011 KBO MVP has transformed back into a closer - a role he last played 10 years ago.

At the beginning of the season, some Tigers fans questioned why the team is using Yoon, who signed a four-year deal worth 9 billion won with the Tigers, as a closer. But because of his performance, the Tigers are still a contender for the tight race for fifth place.

“I have no greed in my personal performance but to see my team going to the post season,” he said.

Meanwhile, Son is looking for his fourth-straight title, but he’s struggling this season. His team, currently fourth in the league, is known for getting big scores with its powerful batters, but Son has been given only 27 save opportunities. At the same time, the 33-year-old right-hander has already blown five saves as batters in the league seem to have adjusted to his pitching style.

“The competition for the saves title is fierce this season,” said KBSN analyst Song Jin-woo, who was the KBO saves champion in 1990. “Lim Chang-min and Lim Chang-yong will have more opportunities to collect saves since their clubs [the Dinos and Lions] are the top two clubs in the league.”

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