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Two-time defending baseball champions continue to stumble

The Doosan Bears, two-time defending champions in South Korean baseball, aren't quite out of woods yet, heading into the second week of May.

And what a difference a year makes. After Sunday's loss to the LG Twins in the Korea Baseball Organization, the Bears are 14-17-1 (wins-losses-ties), good for only seventh place in the 10-team league. They're 8.5 games behind the first-place Kia Tigers.

On May 8 last year, the Bears were in first place at 19-10-1.

Yoo Hee-kwan of the Doosan Bears reacts after giving up a run against the LG Twins in their Korea Baseball Organization game at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul on May 7, 2017. (Yonhap)
Yoo Hee-kwan of the Doosan Bears reacts after giving up a run against the LG Twins in their Korea Baseball Organization game at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul on May 7, 2017. (Yonhap)

The low point came over the past weekend. The Bears and the Twins, who share Seoul's Jamsil Stadium as their home, traditionally clash for a three-game series around the May 5 Children's Day holiday. And for the first time in eight years, the Bears got swept.

Through the first 30 games in 2016, the Bears were leading the KBO in team batting average (.296) and were second in team ERA (3.80).

Their starting pitching, in particular, was outstanding. Dustin Nippert, who went on to win the regular season MVP, was 6-1 en route to a 22-win season. First-year import Michael Bowden was 4-1.

Two South Korean left-handers, Chang Won-jun and Yoo Hee-kwan, were 4-1 and 3-0, respectively. These four were collectively called the "Fantastic Four," and formed the first rotation in the KBO history with four 15-game winners.

On offense, Oh Jae-il, in his first season as an everyday player, batted .392 with five homers over those 30 games.

So far this year, the Bears are only seventh in both team batting average (.272) and ERA (4.60). And the absence of Bowden, who's dealing with a shoulder injury, and the season-long slump of Oh have been the Bears' great undoing.

Bowden was a work horse last year, finishing second on the team with 180 innings pitched and throwing a no-hitter in the process.

Hampered by lingering shoulder pains, the right-hander has made just two appearances this year and has a 0-1 record with a 7.11 ERA across just 6 1/3 innings.

Other starters haven't exactly picked up the slack. While Nippert is 3-2 with a 2.33 ERA, two of the wins have come against the Hanwha Eagles and the Samsung Lions, two of the KBO's worst clubs. Chang and Yoo have two wins apiece.

The Fantastic Four had 17 wins combined on May 8 last year, but just seven this year.

At the plate, Oh ended last season with a .316 average, 27 home runs and 92 RBIs, all of them career highs. This year, though, the 30-year-old has just one home run in 25 games, while batting a measly .195. He has just four extra-base hits in 77 at-bats.

The Bears are still hitting them out frequently -- they're tied for second in the league with 31 home runs -- but without Oh providing punch from the left side of the plate like he did last year, they won't strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers quite like they did a year ago.

Manager Kim Tae-hyung pressed the panic button rather early, replacing his pitching and hitting coaches on April 18 after starting the season 6-8.

Sacking coaches or swapping them with instructors from the minor leagues is a typical step taken by struggling KBO clubs. But those moves have done little to turn things around for the Bears.

It will all have to come from the field. They will need more from Chang, who has lost three straight decisions. Yoo has limited opponents to two earned runs in four of his seven starts, but hasn't received much run support. (Yonhap)