|Players and managers for the Doosan Bears and the Samsung Lions pose with the Korean Series trophy on Wednesday, during the media day event ahead of the KBO championship finals in Daegu. (From left) Pitcher Yu Hui-kwan, designated hitter Hong Seong-heun and manager Kim Jin-wook of Doosan; manager Ryu Joong-wil, outfielder Choi Hyung-woo and pitcher Bae Young-soo of Samsung. (Yonhap News)|
History will be at stake as the Samsung Lions prepare to host the Doosan Bears in the Korean Series, the championship round in the Korea Baseball Organization, starting on Thursday.
The first game of the best-of-seven series is set to start at 6 p.m. Thursday at Daegu Stadium, about 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
The Lions won their third straight pennant with a record of 75-51-2 and earned the bye to the Korean Series. They will have home-field advantage and will host the first two games and, if necessary, Games 6 and 7.
The Bears finished 3.5 games behind the Lions in the regular season at 71-54-3. They eliminated the third-seeded Nexen Heroes in five games in the opening round and knocked off the No. 2 seed LG Twins in four games in the second round.
The two teams met 16 times during the regular season and the Lions won nine of those games. The Lions had a better ERA overall, but the Bears hit for a slightly better average. The Lions had more home runs, but the Bears stole more bases and scored more runs.
No matter who claims the championship, it will be a monumental occasion for South Korean baseball.
The Lions are going for the “three-peat,” trying to become the first club since the 1986-1989 Haitai (currently Kia) Tigers to win at least three consecutive Korean Series.
The Lions, however, would be the first team ever to finish first in the regular season and win the Korean Series in three straight years. In three of their championship seasons, the Tigers finished in second place during the regular season.
The Bears are only the fifth team to reach the Korean Series after finishing in fourth place during the regular season. No fourth-place club has won the Korean Series.
This is the fourth Korean Series meeting between the Lions and the Bears, a record between any two teams in league history, and their first since 2005.
In 1982, the Bears knocked off the Lions in six games, after playing the first game to a tie, to become the inaugural KBO champions. In 2001, the Bears also dispatched the Lions in six games.
Four years later, the Lions swept the Bears in four games.
This year, the Lions will once again try to make short work of the Bears. They are well rested, having last played on Oct. 3.
Despite the extended rest, rust won’t likely be an issue for this club, whose core veterans have already dealt with long layoffs prior to the Korean Series in the past two years.
The Bears, on the other hand, have played nine hard-fought postseason games, five of which were decided by one run, in a 13-day span.
They are also a banged-up club. Left fielder Kim Hyun-soo is hobbled by a sore ankle and sat out Game 4 against the Twins in the previous round. The career .316 hitter has gone just 3-for-25 (.120) this postseason.
The Lions were the only club this year that had four South Korean pitchers reaching double digits in victories. Bae Young-soo, a former league MVP, enjoyed a renaissance season with a league-leading 14 wins, followed by 13 wins apiece for Yoon Sung-hwan and Jang Won-sam, and 10 wins by Cha Woo-chan. All are playoff-tested.
The Bears will counter with 12-game winner Dustin Nippert, who has bounced between the rotation and the bullpen this postseason, plus Noh Kyung-eun, who won Game 1 of the second round series, and rookie southpaw Yu Hui-kwan, who won the decisive Game 4 against the Twins.
Nippert won all three regular season starts against the Lions with a 1.89 ERA. Yu was 2-1 against the Lions with a 1.91 ERA.
Yu has been a revelation in these playoffs. In three starts spanning 21 1/3 innings, Yu has allowed just two earned runs, for a minuscule 0.84 ERA.
The Lions should also have an edge when managers turn to their bullpens in late innings. Setup men Ahn Ji-man and Sim Chang-min are two of the finest in the business. Sim, just 20 years old, struck out 57 batters in 50 1/3 regular season innings.
Oh Seung-hwan, a free-agent-to-be who will likely draw interest from Japanese and Major League Baseball clubs this winter, is one of the most feared closers in the KBO. Voted the Korean Series MVP in 2005 and 2011, Oh has picked up eight saves in 17 Korean Series games and has allowed just two earned runs in 26 innings, for a 0.69 ERA.
The Bears don’t have the luxury of a go-to closer in Oh’s mold.
Hong Sang-sam, Derek Hankins and Chung Jae-hun each had a save against the Twins in the earlier round, though it was more due to the Twins’ inept offense that they earned those saves.
The Bears are without a left-handed pitcher in the pen, which could haunt them in the Korean Series.
The Lions’ two best hitters during the regular season are both left-handed. Choi Hyung-woo hit 29 home runs, drove in 98 runs and had 156 hits, all second-best totals in the league. Chae Tae-in didn’t have enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title, but he hit a robust .381 in 94 games.
Veteran Lee Seung-yeop batted a career-worst .253 and hit only 13 home runs, the second-lowest total of his career, this year. The KBO’s all-time home run leader, however, has long been known to come through in big games and remains a power threat.
He was the Korean Series MVP last year after batting .348 with a home run and seven RBIs in six games. (Yonhap News)