Samsung manager Ryu Joong-il (third from right), SK manager Lee Man-soo (third from left) and player representatives pose with the Korean Series trophy on Tuesday. (Yonhap News)
The past two champions of South Korean professional baseball will clash in the final for the third straight year.
The defending champions Samsung Lions will host the SK Wyverns Wednesday in Daegu to open the championship Korean Series in the Korea Baseball Organization.
The Lions knocked off the Wyverns in five games last year. In 2010, the Wyverns swept the Lions in four games to take their third championship in four seasons.
Samsung’s Lee Seung-yeop (top) and Park Seok-min combined for 44 home runs and 176 RBIs this season. (Yonhap News)
This matchup marks the first time in the league’s 30-year history that the same two teams will square off in three straight Korean Series. The Wyverns have a 10-9 edge in their head-to-head meetings during the season.
The Lions finished with the best regular season record and earned the bye to the Korean Series. They last played on Oct. 6, the final day of the regular season.
The Wyverns, which ended in second place behind Samsung, advanced straight to the second round of the playoffs and eliminated the Lotte Giants in five games on Monday.
They have Tuesday off before resuming their quest for the championship Wednesday.
The Lions had a slow start but cruised from July on, never relinquishing the top spot after July 8. On paper, they have the complete package.
The Lions, which had the league’s best ERA, boast four starting pitchers with at least 10 victories, led by left-hander Jang Won-sam with the KBO-best 17 wins. Closer Oh Seung-hwan topped the league with 37 saves.
On offense, they put up the best team batting average and scored the most runs. In the heart of their order, Lee Seung-yeop, a veteran slugger in his first season back from a stint in Japan, and Park Seok-min combined for 44 home runs and 176 RBIs.
The Wyverns had to climb out of a big hole to reach the postseason. They were sixth at the All-Star break, 6 1/2 games back of the first-place Lions, before turning their season around in the second half.
They went 19-13 in one-run games during the season, the KBO’s best winning percentage in that situation.
With comparatively weaker starting pitching, they will need their bullpen to return to its dominant form from the regular season.
Park Hee-soo and Jung Woo-ram, the two lefties handling setup and closing duties, have struggled with their command this postseason.
Jung, who earned a career-high 30 saves this year, issued four walks in five innings against Lotte, after giving up only nine in 49 innings during the regular season.
At the plate, leadoff hitter Jeong Keun-woo, voted MVP of the second round series, will once again be counted on to spark the Wyverns’ offense. They also have a handful of playoff-tested veterans, including 2010 Korean Series MVP Park Jung-kwon.
Park, who missed the 2008 Korean Series with an injury, has a .323 batting average in his four previous final appearances, about 60 points better than his career batting average.
This year’s Korean Series will feature a managerial matchup between two former Lions’ All-Stars.
Samsung manager Ryu Joong-il and SK manager Lee Man-soo were teammates on the Lions from 1987 to 1997.
Lee, a slugging catcher, was voted the league MVP in 1983. A year later, he became the first KBO player to win the batting Triple Crown as the league leader in home runs, RBIs and batting average. He served as a coach for the Chicago White Sox when they won the World Series in 2005.
Ryu was one of the premier defensive shortstops in his days and won two Gold Gloves in his 13-year career. He had been a defensive coach for the Lions before taking over as the manager in 2011. (Yonhap News)