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(LEAD) Three-time defending champs face upstart juggernaut for S. Korean baseball supremacy

2014/11/03 16:32

SEOUL/DAEGU Nov. 3 (Yonhap) -- The battle for South Korean pro baseball supremacy this year will pit the three-time defending champs against an upstart offensive juggernaut.

The Samsung Lions, which have won every Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) crown since 2011, will take on the Nexen Heroes, which often makes good pitching staffs look dreadful, in the best-of-seven Korean Series starting Tuesday.

The Lions, managed by former All-Star shortstop Ryu Joong-il, are trying to become only the second team to win four Korean Series in a row. Ryu won titles in each of his first three years as the Lions manager.

The Heroes, which joined the KBO in 2008, are chasing their first ever championship under second-year manager Yeom Kyung-yup.

Yeom Kyung-yup (L), manager of the Nexen Heroes, and Ryu Joong-il, manager of the Samsung Lions, shake hands next to the Korean Series championship trophy in Daegu on Nov. 3, 2014. (Yonhap) Yeom Kyung-yup (L), manager of the Nexen Heroes, and Ryu Joong-il, manager of the Samsung Lions, shake hands next to the Korean Series championship trophy in Daegu on Nov. 3, 2014. (Yonhap)

The Lions finished with the best regular season record of 78-47-3 and earned the bye to the Korean Series. The Heroes finished half a game back at 78-48-2 and eliminated the LG Twins in four games in the previous round.

The Lions will host the first two games at Daegu Stadium in Daegu, about 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul. The third and fourth games will be played at the Heroes home of Mokdong Stadium in Seoul.

Though the Lions are supposed to have the home-field advantage, they won't get to celebrate their championship in Daegu. Under the KBO rules, if both teams in the final don't play at a ballpark with at least 25,000 seats, Games 5, 6 and 7 take place at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul, a neutral venue with 25,500 seats.

Daegu Stadium seats 10,000, while Mokdong Stadium has the capacity of 12,500.

The Lions led the regular season meeting at 8-7-1. They won their fourth straight pennant and have rested since the end of the regular season on Oct. 17.

At the media day event held on the eve of Game 1 in Daegu, managers of both clubs expressed confidence.

"We've worked hard over the past two weeks to try to win our fourth straight title," Ryu said. "We played some practice games to stay sharp. We wanted to face Nexen in the Korean Series and we will put on a memorable show in the Korean Series."

   Yeom said he feels the Heroes have the talent to contend for the championship.

"Opportunities like this don't come around every year," he added. "It's an honor to be here, and we'll try our best to make the most of our opportunity. We'll play with desperation in the Korean Series."

   In the regular season, the Lions led the KBO with a .301 average and 161 steals. They produced three 30-homer sluggers, led by the 38-year-old Lee Seung-yuop, who had 32 and became the oldest KBO player with at least 30 long balls in a season. Yamaico Navarro, in his first KBO season, provided plenty of pop from the leadoff spot with 31 homers, 98 RBIs and 27 doubles.

Manager Ryu said Lee will be the key player on offense, saying the Lions will only go as far as he takes them.

"If he swings a good bat, we will have an easy time; if not, we'll be in for a long series," Ryu added.

In the 2012 Korean Series, Lee batted .348 with a home run and seven RBIs and was voted the MVP of the series. He hit a bases-loaded triple in the decisive Game 6.

Last year, Lee batted just .148, as the Lions went down 3-1 in the Korean Series against the Doosan Bears before clawing back to take the championship in seven games.

The Lions have built their dynasty with strong pitching, and they had the second-best team ERA with 4.52 this year. They experienced adventurous moments in late innings, however, with closer Oh Seung-hwan leaving for Japan after last season. Former Chicago Cubs reliever Lim Chang-yong had 31 saves but also had a KBO-high nine blown saves, while posting an unsightly 5.84 ERA.

Ryu said he hasn't lost faith in Lim.

"In the Korean Series, Lim will be our closer," the manager said. "He did blow some saves but he still has the best stuff in our bullpen, and he's worked himself into top shape since the end of the regular season."

   The Heroes knocked off the Twins in the last round as Nexen's vaunted offense came to life after a sluggish start to the postseason.

The Heroes topped the KBO with 199 home runs and 841 runs scored in the regular season, and produced four hitters with at least 20 homers and 90 RBIs. They offered a glimpse into what they can do in their 12-2 victory over the Twins in the decisive Game 4.

In that game, third baseman Kim Min-sung set a new KBO postseason record with seven RBIs. Shortstop Kang Jung-ho also left yard in that game and was voted the MVP of the series, after going 8-for-15 with two home runs and four RBIs. He hit 40 home runs in the regular season, the most by a shortstop in a KBO season.

First baseman Park Byung-ho has yet to go deep, after leading the KBO with 52 homers and 124 RBIs. Leadoff man Seo Geon-chang, who banged out a record 201 hits in the regular season, went just 3-for-16 in four games against the Twins.

Yeom, the Heroes' manager, said he doesn't think Park is struggling in the postseason, even though he has no home runs or RBI.

"I've asked him to make good contact," Yeom said of the slugger who went 5-for-15 in the previous series. "You can't hit home runs just by trying consciously to hit one. I hope he doesn't put too much pressure on himself."

   If Park and Seo find their groove in the Korean Series, even the Lions could have difficulty containing the Heroes lineup.

The Heroes, on the other hand, have a thin starting rotation behind the 20-game winner Andy Van Hekken and the hard-throwing right-hander Henry Sosa. Manager Yeom has also relied almost exclusively on three relief pitchers in the postseason, setup men Cho Sang-woo and Han Hyun-hee, and closer Son Seung-lak.

All three are right-handers, and they will have their hands full against Samsung, who has four left-handed batters with a batting average of .300 or better. Outfielder Choi Hyoung-woo led the team with a .356 average, and he batted .317 against right-handers.

jeeho@yna.co.kr

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