(News Focus) Top KBO sluggers go yard on same day, add drama to home run race
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Aug. 23 (Yonhap) -- The three leading sluggers in the top South Korean baseball league all launched long balls in their games on Thursday, adding drama to the race for the home run crown.
Through Thursday's action in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), Park Byung-ho of the Nexen Heroes and Choi Jeong of the SK Wyverns were tied for the league lead with 24 home runs. Choi Hyung-woo of the Samsung Lions is trailing them with 23 home runs.
Lee Beom-ho of the Kia Tigers has the next highest total with 17 homers. With about 30 games left in this season, it's a three-horse race for the KBO's home run title.
Park, Choi Jeong and Choi Hyung-woo homered on the same day for the first time this season on Thursday.
Choi Jeong was the first to go deep, hitting a two-run shot off the LG Twins' starter Radhames Liz in the bottom of the third and taking the outright lead. The Wyverns defeated the Twins 6-1.
Choi Jeong of the SK Wyverns rounds the bases after hitting a home run against the LG Twins at Munhak Stadium in Incheon on Aug. 22, 2013. (Yonhap)
Choi Hyung-woo stayed in the race by hitting his 23rd homer off Noh Kyung-eun of the Doosan Bears in the bottom of the fourth. He helped the Lions get past the Bears 4-2.
Choi Jeong's lead lasted about an hour, as Park led off the bottom of the sixth with a solo shot off the NC Dinos' Lee Min-ho for his 24th homer. The Heroes went on to win the game, 6-1.
Park, 27, led the KBO last year with a career-high 31 home runs, which also helped him win his first MVP award. He had never hit more than 13 homers a season before last year.
Choi Hyung-woo, 29, was the homer leader in 2011 with his career-high 30, but dipped to just 14 long balls last year before bouncing back in 2013.
Choi Jeong is the only one of the three who has yet to reach the 30-homer plateau or to lead the KBO in home runs. He established his career-best with 26 long balls last year.
The 26-year-old, though, has been the most consistent power threat of the three. This is the fourth straight season in which he has launched at least 20 homers, tied with the second-longest of such streak by an active KBO player.
Choi Jeong, also a threat to post his second straight "20-20" season with at least 20 homers and 20 steals, has the most games left in this season among the three with 33 games. Both Nexen and Samsung have 30 games remaining.
Choi Jeong also had the most spectacular start of the three. He had seven home runs by the end of April, compared to the four by Park and just two by Choi Hyung-woo.
Choi Jeong hit his 13th home run on May 30, while Park went 25 days without a long ball in May and was stuck at nine by the end of May, and Choi Hyung-woo had only six.
Park Byung-ho of the Nexen Heroes launches a home run against the NC Dinos at Mokdong Stadium in Seoul on Aug. 22, 2013. (Yonhap)
The race became more interesting in July. Choi Hyung-woo caught fire by launching nine home runs, and he hit one in four straight games from July 23 to 26. Park kept pace with eight homers of his own in July. Choi Jeong, however, managed just two long balls in 14 July games.
Entering August, Park held the 22-21 lead over Choi Hyung-woo, with Choi Jeong sitting at 18.
Choi Jeong has regained his stroke with six long balls, while both Park and Choi Hyung-woo have scuffled to just two homers apiece.
Choi Hyung-woo's homer on Thursday was his first since Aug. 8, and Park hadn't gone deep since Aug. 15.
Choi Jeong's homer also came in a crucial game for the Wyverns. They're in danger of missing the playoffs this year, after reaching the championship Korean Series a record six years in a row from 2007 to 2012 and winning three titles in that span. The win kept them 4.5 games back of the Heroes for the fourth and the final playoff spot.
After the game, Choi said he was looking for an outside pitch to go the opposite field with a runner on first and he pounced on a belt-high fastball over the right-center.
"This was the best homer I've hit all year, as far as how my hands felt at contact," Choi said. "It was the first time I hit a home run over the right-center field wall (at the Wyverns' home, Munhak Stadium). The ball traveled to the deepest part of the ballpark, and I gained more confidence after this home run."
Park is trying to put the Heroes in the playoffs for the first time in the team history. They were in third place at All-Star break last year before faltering to the KBO's worst record in the second half and ending up in sixth place. They were also in third at this year's midseason break and are trying to hold on to the fourth place as August winds down.
Compared to last season, Park is hitting for a better average, walking more and striking out less -- signs indicating that he's maturing as a hitter.
After Thursday's game, Park said he is more concerned about his team's record than his personal statistics.
"I haven't hit a homer lately, but I was consistently getting on base by drawing walks," he said. "I've also been getting lucky bounces for base hits. But I am going to stay focused on trying to help the team win rather than on winning any individual titles."
The Lions are in first place, leading the Twins by one game, and are trying to win their third straight Korean Series. Only the 1986-89 Haitai Tigers, currently the Kia Tigers, have won at least three championships in a row in the KBO's 31-year history.
The regular season champion earns the bye to the Korean Series, and the battle for the pennant should come down to the wire between the Lions and the Twins.
Choi Hyung-woo predicted it will be much the same story in the home run race.
"The three of us are neck-and-neck, and it has given me extra motivation," he said. "Actually, none of us is swinging the bat perfectly. The winner will probably be determined in the final days (of the season)."
They're also dueling each other in other major offensive categories. Park leads the RBI with 79, with Choi Hyung-woo at 78 and Choi Jeong a bit further back at 69. Park is second in runs scored with 69, three more than Choi Jeong and six more than Choi Hyung-woo.
The Lions' slugger has the edge in hits with 116, second most in the KBO, followed by Park with 111 and Choi Jeong with 104.
They're one-two-three in slugging percentage, with Choi Jeong leading the way at .584.