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(News Focus) Once competitive, popular, Lotte Giants losing games, fans in KBO
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, April 19 (Yonhap) -- It didn't used to be this way for the Lotte Giants in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). The Busan-based Giants have been the most popular club in the nation's top baseball league in terms of home attendance and have been to the playoffs every year since 2008.

   The Giants are the first KBO club to draw more than 1 million fans at home in five straight seasons. That streak is in jeopardy this year, however, as the Giants have been losing fans, not to mention games, at an alarming rate.

   The Giants were creamed by the Nexen Heroes 14-4 at home on Thursday. The Heroes pounded four Lotte pitchers for 25 hits, just two shy of the league record for most in a game.

   After winning the first five games of the season, Lotte has now gone without a win in its last eight, with seven defeats and one tie.

   According to the KBO, only 6,886 fans watched the latest game at the 28,000-seat Sajik Stadium. Maybe Lotte would have preferred not to have too many fans witness the debacle, but it marked the sixth straight home game that Lotte couldn't sell out.

   On March 30, Lotte's home opener against the Hanwha Eagles drew 26,708 fans. It was the first time since 2006 that Lotte had failed to pack Sajik for a home opening game.

   The attendance dipped to 17,828 fans the next day. For the Giants' home game on April 5 against the Kia Tigers, there were just 14,569 fans.

   After a rainout on April 6, 19,616 fans showed up to watch the Giants on April 7. But when the boys returned home from a road trip to host the Heroes on Tuesday this week, only 7,855 fans were there. On Wednesday, there were only 6,451. It's a disconcerting trend, given that Lotte averaged over 20,700 fans per home game in 2012.

  


The Giants haven't helped themselves on the field. They've only won two of their seven home games so far, both against the lowly Eagles who opened this season by losing a KBO-record 13 games in a row. The three other wins came against the NC Dinos, the expansion team who started their inaugural KBO season with a seven-game losing streak.

   Hanwha and NC are the only two teams below Lotte in the standings.

   Asked about the sparse crowds on the opening weekend, Lotte officials said Busan residents might have gone to see cherry blossoms instead of baseball. It didn't seem to be a plausible reason in a city known for having the country's most passionate baseball fan base.

   And to blame other distractions is to overlook problems with much deeper roots.

   The Giants lost two key players to free agency last winter. Outfielder Kim Joo-chan, who'd spent 10 seasons with Lotte, signed a four-year deal with the Tigers. Hong Sung-heun, the team's designated hitter and club house leader for four seasons, went back to his former team, the Doosan Bears, also on a four-year contract.

   For Lotte, Kim had been a decent leadoff man who could steal bases and play multiple positions, and Hong had been a savvy power hitter good for 15 to 20 home runs and a batting average close to .300.

   Their departures came after the Giants saw Lee Dae-ho, a two-time batting Triple Crown winner, bolt for Japan as a free agent in 2011. Lotte has been particularly stingy in offering raises or new contracts to star players, which has been cited as the main reason for the recent exodus.

   The lack of star power without these three players could be a reason for lackluster attendance. More tangibly, their absence has reduced a team with an exciting offense capable of scoring in double figures on any given day to a frustrating club to watch. The Giants are batting just .205 with runners in scoring position and have hit the KBO-worst three home runs.

  


On the mound, right-handed starter Chris Oxspring, in his second tour of duty in the KBO after a stint with the LG Twins from 2007 to 2008, remains winless after four starts.

   He opened his season by throwing 5 1/3 solid innings against the Eagles on March 31, giving up two earned runs in a no decision. But Oxspring lost his next three starts, including the 14-4 drubbing Thursday by the Heroes in which he gave up 12 hits and seven runs in just four innings.

   Oxspring has walked 14 and hit four batters in 19 innings so far. On Thursday, he often fell behind in the count and struggled to keep the ball down in the zone.

   Oxspring pitched two solid games for Australia at the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in March, enough to impress Lotte's manager Kim Si-jin, who once said he felt Oxspring threw even harder than he had five years ago with the Twins.

   Though Oxspring has yet to live up to heightened expectations, Kim said he will be patient with the Australian.

   "Oxspring has good stuff, and he knows what his problems are," said Kim, an All-Star pitcher in his playing days. "He's not injured, either. I think he will be better down the road."

   Kim, in his first season managing the Giants, wasn't as patient with his coaches. On Thursday, he demoted his base running coach, Park Gye-won, to the team's minor league affiliate, and replaced him with the minor league base running coach, Park Hyun-seung.

   Managers often swap coaches to shake things up and send a message to the rest of the team. It remains to be seen whether the move will have the desired effect for the Giants.

   For the weekend, they travel to Daegu to face the Samsung Lions, the two-time defending champs. The Lions are 8-5, while batting the league-best .327 and slugging at a .460 clip.

   jeeho@yna.co.kr
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