(LEAD) (News Focus) Park Byung-ho closing in on 2nd straight MVP thanks to monstrous Sept.
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Sept. 23 (Yonhap) -- In the spirits of Chuseok, the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving, Park Byung-ho, the slugging first baseman for the Nexen Heroes, gave his fans plenty to feel thankful for last weekend, further cementing his MVP case in the process.
The reigning MVP in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) enjoyed a productive Chuseok holiday, which lasted from Wednesday to Sunday. The Heroes played four games during the long weekend, and Park, starting all four in the cleanup spot, launched three home runs and drove in six runs, adding to his KBO-leading totals of 33 home runs and 105 RBIs. He went 4-for-13 in those four games and scored four times, as the Heroes won three times.
In 15 games this month, Park is batting .316 with eight home runs and 21 RBIs. He has opened a sizable lead in homers and RBIs, as Choi Jeong of the SK Wyverns trails him by five home runs and Na Ji-wan of the Kia Tigers remains second in RBIs with 94.
Should he finish as the leader in those two power categories, Park will have an excellent shot at becoming only the fourth KBO player to repeat as the league MVP.
Park Byung-ho of the Nexen Heroes watches his 33rd home run of the 2013 KBO season against the Lotte Giants at Mokdong Stadium in Seoul on Sept. 22, 2013. (Yonhap)
In his breakout 2012 season, Park led the KBO with 31 homers, 105 RBIs and a .561 slugging percentage. He also stole 20 bases to join the 20-20 club. Even though the Heroes finished sixth among eight teams and failed to make the postseason, Park earned 73 of a possible 91 votes from the media to grab his first MVP award.
The 27-year-old has been even better this year, and the Heroes, in third place with eight games to play, will most likely make the first postseason in the club's five-year history. They have won seven of their past eight and need just two more victories to clinch a playoff berth.
Through Sunday's games, Park is the KBO leader in home runs, RBIs, runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walks and total bases.
Park has already set new career highs in home runs and RBIs. He batted .290 last season but is up to .318 this year. He has drawn more walks this year than last, 84 to 73, and has struck out fewer times, 111 to 89.
More walks and fewer strikeouts have translated into a superior on-base percentage, .393 last year to the KBO-best .435 in 2013. His slugging percentage is now at .592, which also tops the league. He has scored 83 runs in 2013, up from 76 last year.
Most of Park's home runs have come in close situations, too. Of his 33 dingers, nine have given the Heroes a lead when the score was tied. He has hit seven homers when his team was leading by just one and five home runs when Nexen was down by one.
Park has hit home runs in 30 games this season, and the Heroes recorded 26 wins, three losses and one tie in those games.
He played all 133 games last season and has so far played every one of Nexen's 120 games in 2013, with eight games remaining.
Choi, the third baseman for SK, has been neck-and-neck with Park for most of the season in power categories, and he has 22 steals, 16 more than Park, for his second straight 20-20 season.
Choi's Wyverns, though, are well out of playoff contention, 7.5 games out of the fourth and the final playoff spot with 10 games remaining.
Choi Hyung-woo of the first-place Samsung Lions may get a few votes. He is among the top five in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage but trails Park by a wide margin in all of them. The LG Twins and the Doosan Bears, two other playoff contenders, feature no outstanding MVP candidate, and Park could enjoy another landslide victory in the MVP balloting.
Sun Dong-yol, once a dominant pitcher and now the Kia Tigers manager, was the first to repeat as the MVP in 1989 and 1990. Jang Jong-hoon, a shortstop for the Binggrae (currently Hanwha) Eagles, followed up Sun with two straight MVP awards in 1991 and 1992.
Lee Seung-yeop, a first baseman for the Lions, was named the MVP in 2001, 2002 and 2003. Lee leads all KBO players with five career MVP awards, having also won in 1997 and 1999, followed by Sun with three. Sun's first came in 1986.
In the midst of his productive weekend, Park attributed his success this year to improved plate discipline.
"I've been more patient this year so I could draw more walks, and that has improved my batting average, too," Park told reporters before Saturday's game. "Compared to last year, I am better able to lay off bad pitches."
Park also credited team captain Lee Taek-geun with helping him take a better approach at the plate, saying the veteran outfielder has advised him on "technical things."
"After I got past 30 home runs and 100 RBIs, I've been able to relax more," Park added. "Our team has done well this year, and I think I've done my job as the cleanup hitter. I want to help the team move higher in the standings before the end of this season."
Yeom Kyung-yup, the Heroes' manager, said Park has helped the club in every facet.
"He's the pillar of this ball club as the cleanup guy," Yeom said. "Whether it's getting on base, hitting home runs or driving in runs, Park is hands down the best hitter in this league."
Yeom also praised Park's work ethic and solid fundamentals, which he said have kept Park from suffering any letdown following his first MVP season.
"In the KBO, not a lot of cleanup guys run to first as hard as Park Byung-ho on an infield grounder," the manager said. "When I feel that he needs to conserve his energy, I actually have to tell him to slow down a bit. He has stayed healthy to play every game and to put up great numbers. He is every manager's dream."