When the weather gets hot, the Lions roar

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When the weather gets hot, the Lions roar

The Samsung Lions are thundering through Korea’s heat wave. With their eyes set on fifth place, the Daegu team is the KBO’s latest force to be reckoned with.

The Lions were the worst team in the KBO back in mid-May. Although they crawled up to sixth place in early June, they slipped right back down to eighth afterwards. But since the All-Star break, the Lions have been fighting their way back up the rankings. They swept the Lotte Giants in three games right before the break and have won four series since the break. The Lions’ strong performance is shaking up the mid-tier of the KBO. Currently in sixth place with 47 wins, two ties and 52 losses, the Lions are right behind the fifth-place Nexen Heroes, with 49 wins and 54 losses. The KIA Tigers are a game and a half behind the Lions at seventh place. The Lions finally have a hope of making it to the playoffs for the first time in three years.

The Daegu team is known for being better in the summer. When current LG Twins manager Ryu Joong-il used to manage the Lions, he liked to say that the team “waited for the cicadas to sing.” The Lions are based in Daegu, the hottest city in the country, and are used to playing in hot weather. They used to sweat even more back when they played in Daegu Citizen Stadium, where artificial grass covered the field in a blanket of heat.

After the Lions moved to Daegu Samsung Lions Park, they finished in ninth place for two consecutive years, but still won more games than they lost during July. As temperatures reach record highs this summer, the Lions are showing off their “summer DNA.” Commentator Yang Joon-hyuk, who played outfield for the Samsung Lions until 2010, says that the Lions are in their natural habitat during a heat wave.

“A lot of their players grew up in the Daegu heat, and even players who didn’t get used to it after joining the club,” said Yang. “The heat is not as bad in Lions Park, but back when we played in Daegu Citizen Stadium, the away teams had a really hard time playing there.”

Behind the Lions’ recent success is their stellar pitching. In the second half of the season, their pitchers’ average ERA is the lowest in the KBO, at 3.26. Their starting pitchers pitched an average of six innings and kept their ERA low at 2.88. This is in sharp contrast to the first half of the year, when their starting pitchers had the highest average ERA in the KBO, 5.87, and pitched an average of 5.17 innings, making them eighth in innings pitched.

Lisalverto Bonilla and Tim Adleman, both foreign pitchers who were almost kicked off the team, have changed for the better. Bonilla has been using more changeups and Adleman has altered his pitching mechanics. Rookie Yang Chang-seop is stealing the show as well. After suffering an injury and being sent to the KBO’s minor leagues in April, Yang returned to the Lions to win three of his six starts.

The Lions’ batting has improved as well. While they were dependent on powerful batters like Darin Ruf and Kim Hun-gon in the first half of the year, now contact hitters like Park Hae-min and Koo Ja-wook have been getting on base, and the sluggers have been driving them in.
Veteran Park Han-yi is playing his part too, producing walk-off hits in two consecutive games against the Hanwha Eagles from July 21 to 22. Lee Ji-young, who has started to use a more open batting stance, is now batting 0.372.

The team has also been better in extra innings. The Lions lost all of their first five extra-inning games of the season, but the second half of the season has been different. They won five out of six games where they were leading or trailing by one run, thanks to their relievers Sim Chang-min, Jang Pil-joon, Park Geun-hong, Choi Chung-yeon and Kwon Oh-jun.

In their July 27 home game against the KIA Tigers, the Lions scored three runs in the bottom half of the 11th inning after allowing two in the top half. Commentator Yang Joon-hyuk praised the Lions for their performance, calling it “a game that showed the Lions’ power.”

BY KIM HYO-KYUNG, NOH SHIN-YOUNG [noh.shinyoung@joongang.co.kr]
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