Tigers brace for sudden-death wildcard

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Tigers brace for sudden-death wildcard


From left, the Nexen Heroes’ Lee Jung-hoo, Park Byung-ho and Jang Jung-seok and the Kia Tigers’ Kim Ki-tai, An Chi-hong and Kim Yoon-dong during a KBO wildcard press conference on Monday. [YONHAP]

After barely clinching the last postseason spot over the sixth ranked Samsung Lions, the Kia Tigers hardly get a chance to catch their breath before they get thrown into the postseason with the sudden-death wildcard game starting today.

The 2017 regular season and Korean Series Champion had a rough 2018, only just earning the last spot in the postseason by defeating the Lotte Giants 6-4 on Saturday. The win on Saturday allowed the Tigers to tie their winning percentage with the Lions, but as the Tigers were just ahead in the number of wins this season, they earn the last postseason spot.

But it isn’t going to be easy. Not only were the Tigers one of the teams to play the most games over the last two weeks, but they enter the wildcard with an immediate disadvantage. As the fifth ranked team, the Tigers have to win both games to advance to the first playoff round. A loss or a tie in tonight’s game means immediate elimination.

No wildcard team has ever advanced into the first round of the postseason since it was introduced in 2015.

“Our team’s starting pitcher is Yang Hyeon-jong,” said Tigers manager Kim Ki-tai.

Kim’s pick is a surprise as Yang hasn’t fully recovered from his intercostal muscle injury. An injury during the Tigers’ game against the Lions on Oct. 3 led Yang to be excluded from the roster for the remaining games during the regular season - and he hasn’t made a single appearance on the mound since.

This season, Yang was the most trustworthy pitcher in the Tigers’ rotation, picking up 13 wins and 11 losses with a 4.15 ERA. In addition, Yang has performed well against the Heroes this season. He won two games against the Heroes with a 1.29 ERA.

“Up until recently, I had a lot of concerns [regarding Yang’s start] due to an injury, but he wanted to pitch,” Kim said. “Once he returned to the roster, he made about 50 to 60 bullpen pitches and didn’t have any pain. Since he is a responsible player, I have high expectations.”

Since the Tigers had been struggling on the mound this season and they can’t lose the game today, Kim was given no choice but to start Yang, who has had the best season.

“It is true that we played way below expectations this season,” Kim said. “Our goal is to show home fans two more games at home. [So] we have to win tomorrow’s game.”

The Heroes enter the game with a huge advantage, as just a tie will immediately push them through to the first round of the playoffs. Not only that, the Heroes had the least number of rain cancellations so they had more time to recover and prepare for the wildcard game.

“Since it’ll be over if we win the first game, aside from Eric Hacker, all our pitchers will be getting ready to pitch in the first game,” said Heroes manager Jang Jung-seok.

While this is the Tigers’ third straight postseason appearance, for Jang, who was appointed as the Heroes manager last season, this is his first postseason game as a manager.

“Looking back at this season, we had a lot of things happen,” Jang said. “But when we had a difficult time, our coaches provided a great environment [for the players] to focus only in games. And we got to this point as Lee Taek-keun and our veteran players led the young players well.”

Against the Tigers’ Yang, the Heroes will field its best batters in the hope of ending the wildcard game after only one game. Lee Jung-hoo, the Heroes’ leadoff, had great statistics against Yang this season, with a batting average of .320.

Not only that, Heroes’ cleanup Park Byung-ho has a history of playing well against Yang. Although Park stayed silent against Yang this season, between 2013 and 2015 - before he left for the majors - he had a batting average of .529 against Yang.

This season, the Heroes successfully avoided a fierce competition for the wildcard with an 11-game winning streak before the Asian Games break. During the month of August, Lee had a .532 batting average while Park had a .345 batting average with 43 home runs this season.

The first wildcard game will start at 6:30 p.m. today at Gocheok Sky Dome in western Seoul.

BY LEE HYEONG-SEOK AND BAE YOUNG-EUN [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]
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