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Baseball season kicks off this weekend

After a busy off-season that saw a match-fixing investigation, departure of longtime franchise stars and arrival of new players, Korean fans are finally ready for the beginning of a new baseball season.

The regular season commences this weekend when the defending champion Samsung Lions play a pair of games against the LG Twins in Daegu, while the Doosan Bears face the Nexen Heroes at the Jamsil Stadium in Seoul.

Eight teams in the country’s top league will play each other in a total of 532 games over the regular season before the top four teams go into playoffs in October.

The Korea Baseball Organization expects to attract a record 7.1 million fans this season -- it drew some 6.8 million fans to ballparks last year, marking an all-time record.

The KBO league had a setback earlier this year with two pitchers from the LG Twins being suspended indefinitely for match fixing.

Yet, it seems unlikely that the popularity of professional baseball league will be dampened by the scandal. More than 35,000 fans visited ball parks to see last month’s pre-season games.

Title race

The defending KBO champions, Samsung Lions, are undoubtedly the strong favorite to win the title again this year. The Lions, which beat the SK Wyverns in the Korean Series last year, boast a strong line-up of pitchers, including the league’s best closer Oh Seung-hwan.

In addition to Oh, the Daegu-based team has also brought in former Major League pitcher Mitchell Talbot.

Talbot, who pitched for the Tampa Bay Rays and also the Cleveland Indians before coming to Korea in December, is expected to make a strong impact on the mound for the Lions.

Another bit of good news for the team is the return of veteran slugger Lee Seung-yeop. Lee, who still holds the KBO record of 56 home runs in a season, is back with the Lions after eight years in Japan.

Baseball pundits believe the SK Wyverns and the Kia Tigers could pose a strong challenge for the title.

The Wyverns saw the departure of two pitchers -- Chong Tae-hyon and Lee Seung-ho -- during the off-season but the team still has a strong bull pen that boasts one of the league’s best left-handed pitchers, Kim Kwang-hyun.

Kia Tigers pitcher Yoon Suk-min, who was voted the KBO’s MVP last season, is looking stronger than ever.

Although the team is still in shock following franchise star Lee Jong-beom’s sudden retirement, manager Sung Dong-ryul, one of Korea’s all-time great pitchers, has the ability to guide the team into the future.

Meanwhile, the Hanwha Eagles may not be a title contender but they are expected to attract much attention this season thanks to the return of Park Chan-ho.

Park, who pitched for more than 17 years in the majors, signed a one-year deal with the Eagles at the end of last year and will play in the Korean league for the first time. 

By Oh Kyu-wook