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Real season begins

Lotte catcher Kang Min-ho (right) leads the team with 19 home runs. (Yonhap News)
Lotte catcher Kang Min-ho (right) leads the team with 19 home runs. (Yonhap News)
Lotte, Doosan to clash in opening round of playoffs

A pair of banged-up clubs will clash in the opening playoff round in South Korea’s top baseball competition starting next week.

The Doosan Bears and the Lotte Giants will meet in the best-of-five KBO series, which begins next Monday. In the eight-team KBO, the top four teams in the regular season reach the postseason.

The regular season champion earns a bye into the championship Korean Series. The No. 3 and the No. 4 teams play in the first round, with the winner going on to meet the No. 2 regular season club in the second round, which is also best-of-five.

The Samsung Lions, the defending champs, have clinched their second straight bye to the Korean Series. The No. 2 SK Wyverns will await the winner of the Bears-Giants series in the second round.
Doosan’s Scott Proctor has racked up 34 saves this season. (Yonhap News)
Doosan’s Scott Proctor has racked up 34 saves this season. (Yonhap News)

The Korean Series is a best-of-seven affair.

The 2012 regular season ends Saturday, and through Thursday’s games, the Bears lead the Giants by 1 1/2 games in third place with both teams having two games remaining.

Should the Bears secure the third spot, they will have the home-field advantage and will host the first two games plus the fifth game, if necessary, at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul.

The Giants, based in Busan, about 450 kilometers southeast of Seoul, will host Games 3 and 4 at Sajik Stadium in that scenario.

Lotte is making its fifth straight postseason appearance. The Bears, runners-up in 2007 and 2008, are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

These two clubs also met in the first rounds in 2009 and 2010.

In 2009, the Bears dropped the opener but won the next three games to advance. The following year, the Bears lost the first two games, but then won three straight to eliminate the Giants.

The Bears have the edge in head-to-head meetings this season, with 10 wins, eight losses and one tie.

Both teams will be missing important players to injuries. For the Bears, Jung Soo-bin, one of KBO’s best defensive outfielders, has been ruled out for the season after breaking his orbital bone on a foul ball off his face.

Shortstop Son Si-heon, another key defensive player, broke his right index finger on a pitch late last month and will also miss the playoffs.

The Giants, who spent most of the second half in second place, suffered losing streaks of seven games and then five games in their late-season swoon. They only clinched the playoff berth on Tuesday.

Injuries had a lot to do with their freefall. First baseman Park Jong-yoon fouled a pitch off his face and suffered a broken cheekbone.

Catcher Kang Min-ho, who leads the team with 19 home runs, experienced concussion symptoms after a home plate collision last month. Shane Youman, their No. 1 starter with a team-high 13 wins, is recovering from a toe injury.

With depleted rosters for both clubs, baseball analysts said it will be a closely fought series.

Heo Koo-youn, the color commentator for MBC, said Doosan appears to have suffered bigger losses with their injured players.

“The Bears’ game is built on keen baseball sense and speed,” he said. “The absence of Son Si-heon and Jung Soo-bin will negate much of the team’s strength. They have good pitching but that alone won’t be enough without these players in the lineup.”

Doosan will use Dustin Nippert, an ex-member of the Texas Rangers, Lee Yong-chan and Noh Kyung-eun as their top starters, each with at least 10 victories this year. Nippert carries a 3-1 record with a 2.13 ERA against Lotte this season.

Heo said the Giants’ rotation of Youman, former U.S. minor leaguer Song Seung-jun and Ryan Sadowski should also be able to hold their ground.

“In terms of bullpens, I would give an edge to the Giants,” the analyst said. “If the Giants can keep their emotions in check and play more consistent baseball, I think they should win the series.”

Lee Soong-yong, a former KBO All-Star and now commentator for cable station XTM, predicted the Bears will come out on top. (Yonhap News)