Can the KBO champions continue their reign?

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Can the KBO champions continue their reign?

The SK Wyverns didn’t start the 2018 KBO season as favorites.


From left: SK Wyverns pitchers Kim Kwang-hyun, Brock Dykxhoorn and Angel Sanchez are expected to lead the club’s starting rotation in the 2019 season. [YONHAP]

They were by no means a weak team, but with the Kia Tigers returning from their 2017 win with virtually the same team, the Lotte Giants dropping millions on new players in the off season and the Doosan Bears set to continue their dominant run for another year, the Wyverns didn’t exactly top the list of title contenders.

This year it’s a very different story. The reigning champions are under pressure to repeat last season’s performance - judging by the strength of their pitchers alone, they could be in with a shot.

The end of the 2018 season was bittersweet for the Wyverns. Although they won the Korean Series title by defeating the Bears, the club had to part ways with manager Trey Hillman, who announced that he would leave for personal reasons before the Korean Series began.

The Wyverns appointed Yeom Kyung-yup as their new manager right after winning the title. To have a better shot at retaining their title this season under the new skipper, the Wyverns completed their 2019 season preparation early by re-signing two of their free agent players - third baseman Choi Jeong and catcher Lee Jae-won.

While the team retained the top players in their batting lineup, it’s the pitchers who are really expected to start strong this year. The Wyverns are currently training in Okinawa, Japan, and the pitchers are slowly getting in shape for the season, which starts in just two weeks.

During spring training last season, left-hander Kim Kwang-hyun didn’t get off to a strong start as it was his first season back from a year of rehabilitation following elbow surgery. As he is considered the Wyverns’ ace pitcher, the club’s coaching staff limited the number of innings he pitched, to ensure he could return without injury.

The technique paid off. Kim picked up 11 wins and eight losses with a 2.98 ERA in 25 games last season.

This season, Kim should be in a better starting point. He is more engaged in spring training and is working on adding additional control to his pitches. Last season, Kim mostly threw fastballs and sliders, but this year he is working on adding a curve ball and splitter.

So far, Kim is on track for another strong season. During the Wyverns’ practice game against the Hanwha Eagles on Monday, Kim tossed a scoreless inning and pitched at 149 kilometers per hour (92.58 miles per hour).

“This season, I want to toss more than 200 innings,” Kim said.

Kim emphasized that he can pitch in regular season, postseason and the upcoming Premier12. Yet 200 innings might be a stretch for a player who only threw a total of 136 innings in 25 games last season.

Kim isn’t the only pitcher ready to defend the title this year.

Angel Sanchez, who will be playing his second season in the KBO, is hoping to see a more consistent season this year. During his first season on the KBO, Sanchez struggled with his diet. He lost about 9 kilograms (19.8 pounds) toward the second half of the season, affecting his performance on the mound.

Due to the unexpectedly severe weight loss, Sanchez’s ERA skyrocketed to 8.78 in the second half of the season. In the first half, he picked up seven wins and three losses with a 3.42 ERA. Sanchez not only regained his weight, but he has already produced a fastball speed over 150 kilometers per hour during spring training.

Brock Dykxhoorn, who will replace Merrill Kelly, is expected to add strength to the Wyverns’ starting rotation. Standing at 2.03 meters (6 feet and 7 inches), Dykxhoorn has a higher release point and, as this is his first season playing professional baseball in Asia, he is unfamiliar to the Korean batters. During the practice game against the Eagles, Dykxhoorn gave up a run and three walks in one and one third of an inning.

Aside from Kim and the two foreign pitchers, submarine pitcher Park Jong-hoon is hoping to play a better season this year. He had his best season yet with 14 wins last year.

The Wyverns are also hoping to see some action from major league returnee Ha Jae-hoon. Ha, who played in the minor league for the Chicago Cubs, will make his KBO debut this season. Although he was an outfielder, he will be a pitcher for the Wyverns.

He showed his potential as a pitcher, tossing a fastest speed of 155 kilometers per hour during the Wyverns’ spring camp in Florida.

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