Lions lose some of their roar with pitching woesIt is no longer a surprise that the Hanwha Eagles are placed eighth out of nine teams in the Korea Baseball Organization even though they were the biggest shopper in the offseason, but it is strange that the defending champions Samsung Lions are seventh.
Their biggest worry before the season began was replacing their all-star closer Oh Seung-hwan who left to play for Japan’s Hanshin Tigers. But the Lions’ former star, Lim Chang-yong, returned to the team after wrapping up his six-year journey in Japan and the U.S., and their problem seemed to be solved, leading analysts and fans to pick the Lions as the strongest KBO season contender. Lim went 11-13 with 128 saves and a 2.08 ERA in Japan as the Yakult Swallows’ closer.
But in the past three weeks, the aura that the champions had after winning three consecutive KBO titles was gone. Compared to last season’s team ERA of 3.98, their team ERA of 4.47 is sixth in the league. Considering that the Lions are considered a “pitchers’ team” that doesn’t allow many runs or reversals with the strong bull pen, the number is unacceptable.
The Lions’ biggest problem is that their starting pitchers haven’t played well since spring camp. Their U.S. import J.D. Martin was sidelined for more than a month due to a hamstring injury he sustained in training at Okinawa, and Rick VandenHurk is now out of the 40-man roster after a miserable start with a record of 1-1 with an ERA of 7.36. In last week’s game against the Doosan Bears, he was replaced with a reliever after throwing only two pitches due to a pain in his right shoulder.
Their ace Jang Won-sam has been on a pitching roller-coaster. He picked up his first win of the season with six scoreless innings against the Lotte Giants on April 6, but he allowed 10 runs in the other two games he started.
Another of the Lions’ pitching worries is their eighth inning set-up man Ahn Ji-man who was supposed to take the role of closer this season if Lim didn’t come back to the KBO. He made some changes in his delivery to prepare for the new position, but it looks like it was a poison for him. He is 0-1 with 1 save with an ERA of 7.50 in six games.
One good thing is Martin eventually made a fine KBO debut last week against the NC Dinos, allowing one run in seven innings while striking out five in the team’s 5-1 win. Most of his fastballs ranged between 135 and 140 kilometers (83.9 to 87 miles) per hour, but his breaking ball repertoire including sliders, curveballs and sinkers were enough to beat the Dinos.
The team’s hitting was even worse than its pitching. Their .260 team batting average was the second worst in the league, and their record of 68 scored runs and 12 home runs was the worst as of Monday. The biggest problem was the leadoff spot that was managed by Bae Yeong-seob until last season. But since Bae joined the military for two years, manager Ryu Joong-il tested Jung Hyung-sik, who has struggled with a batting average of .130 in 15 games.
Without many runners on scoring positions, hitters in the middle of the lineup, Chae Tae-in (.323), Choi Hyung-woo (.315) and Park Suk-min (.364), were bound to bring in wins.
It looks like Ryu is testing his lineups and was successful when he placed Yamaico Navarro, who used to bat at sixth or seventh at the leadoff. In the game against the Dinos on Sunday, he hit four for five with three RBIs.
“I will utilize Navarro as the leadoff for a while,” Ryu said. “Since Jung [Hyung-sik] is set free from the leadoff spot, I hope he will bounce back. And because we now have Martin in our rotation, Baek Jung-hyun, who had been our fifth starter, will be in the bull pen and I think it will improve the team’s pitching as well.”
BY KWON SANG-SOO [email@example.com]