In the topsy-turvy start to the 2017 Korea Baseball Organization season, the third-year franchise KT Wiz have emerged as the unlikely leader of the pack.
The Wiz, which had the league's worst record in each of the past two seasons, are sitting at 7-1 through Sunday, after extending their winning streak to four with a 3-0 victory over the Samsung Lions at home in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province.
Starter Ryan Feierabend threw a four-hit shutout, striking out 11 to improve to 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA this season. The left-hander was perfect through six innings.
Ryan Feierabend throws a pitch against the Samsung Lions in their Korea Baseball Organization game at Suwon KT Wiz Park in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, on April 9, 2017. (KT Wiz)
At this time of the year, the top of the standings in the 10-team league isn't a completely unfamiliar place for the Wiz.
They occupied first place very briefly on April 5 last year, after winning three of their first four games. They dropped to fourth place with a loss the next day and never reached first place again the rest of the season.
The Wiz ended up winning only 53 games in 2016, just one more than their inaugural season a year earlier.
The difference this time around is dominant pitching. As a team, the Wiz have a 1.00 ERA after eight games. Their bullpen, in particular, has yet to give up a run in 22 innings since the start of the season.
They've already enjoyed three shutout victories, compared with only two in all of 2016 and have not yet allowed more than two runs in a game.
Such strong pitching has helped mask the worst offense in the league. The Wiz are batting a league-low .209 and are dead last in runs scored (25), hits (51), total bases (72) and in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.577).
Lee Jin-young, one of the Wiz's veteran hitters at 36, said the bats will come around too.
"Our pitchers have covered our backs whenever we struggled at the plate," said Lee, who went 2-for-4 on Sunday and is batting .238 on the season in eight games. "The hitters are all determined to return the favor."
Lee, who joined the Wiz in an expansion draft in 2015, said the team morale has been high since spring training -- the Wiz finished first in the preseason -- and the young players seem to have the right mindset for success.
"In our dugout, young guys ask veterans like myself a lot of questions about how to get ready for at-bats," Lee said. "But it goes both ways, because I sometimes ask young pitchers how to hit certain opposing pitchers. I think this type of communication breeds success, because we all learn something new. I can feel that this ball club is growing."
The confidence up and down the roster has apparently had a positive impact on the team's fielding too. After committing a league-worst 130 errors in 144 games last year, the Wiz have made just two errors so far this season, the fewest among the 10 teams.
"Fielding is all about confidence, and errors can be contagious," said fielding coach Kim Yong-gook. "Right now, the players look really smooth out there."
The Wiz have now tied their franchise record with four straight wins, and will visit the Nexen Heroes at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul for a three-game set starting Tuesday.
Kim Jin-wook, who replaced the Wiz's inaugural manager Cho Bum-hyun last fall, said the outstanding performance by the pitching staff so far isn't a surprise because the team always had great arms.
"I just wanted to create an environment conducive to success and bring out the best in them," Kim said. "The players have really stepped up, and this is all thanks to them."
Kim readily admits the Wiz don't have the firepower to sustain their early run and said the team will run into a wall sooner or later.
But he said he wants his players to hold their heads high.
"Even after losses, I'll stand in front of the dugout and high-five my guys," Kim said. "We'll come from behind to win, and we'll blow some leads to lose. Either way, we'll have fun." (Yonhap)