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With veterans set to return, Hanwha Eagles looking to take off in KBO


Funny how baseball works sometimes.

As of Sunday morning, the Hanwha Eagles were mired in an 18-game losing streak, tied for longest in the history of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), which began in 1982. By the evening, though, the Eagles emerged with two straight victories, the longest active winning streak in the league.

The Eagles ended the slide with a 7-6 victory over the Doosan Bears at home in Daejeon, 160 kilometers south of Seoul. It was a continuation of a game suspended by rain Saturday evening, and the two teams had to play their original Sunday game right afterward.

The Eagles barely had time to celebrate the first win, and they went back out and beat the Bears 3-2 to complete the doubleheader sweep.

Can they build on this momentum and take off? Or will this mini-streak prove to be a flash in the pan?

The answer may lie in the impending return of some much-maligned veterans.

Interim manager Choi Won-ho, immediately after taking the reins last Monday, demoted 10 underperforming regulars to the Futures League, the KBO's minor league. Choi, who had been the Eagles' Futures League skipper, called up longtime minor leaguers and rookies to fill those roster spots.

Choi wanted to shake things up and give the clubhouse a shot in the arm with some fresh faces. The new boss also intended to start a long and painful rebuilding process by giving young and unproven names a chance to play, even at the expense of a few more losses in the short term.

Before his first game last Tuesday, Choi quipped that his team wasn't going to lose 100 straight games. But then the Eagles dropped four more games, moving into a tie with the 1985 Sammi Superstars for the longest futility streak.

Along the way, Choi began relying on some remaining veterans more often. A dose of reality seemed to have hit him. Developing young players by throwing them into fire may have been a novel idea. But so much losing can take its mental toll on players, young or old.

After all, when your first taste of KBO ball is tying the record for the longest losing streak, what good does that do to your psyche?

Now that the slide is behind the Eagles, Choi can take a deep breath and start planning for the rest of the season with a clearer focus.

Those who were demoted last week will be eligible to return on Thursday. And not all of the veterans who were unceremoniously sent down to the Futures League deserved the boot.

Granted, fans wanted designated hitter Lee Sung-yul, stuck at two homers after belting out 55 the previous two years, gone well before Choi came on board. Ditto for third baseman Song Kwang-min, who had struck out 20 times while drawing just three walks and homering twice in 29 games.

Then there's the complicated presence of outfielder Choi Jin-hang.

The 34-year-old outfielder began the season in the minors while nursing a calf injury, and was called up on May 31. He homered in back-to-back games on June 5 and 6, but then got the demotion two days later.

Choi Won-ho took some heat for sending down his hottest hitter, just at a time when the Eagles desperately needed some punch in the lineup. With losses piling up for the Eagles, Choi Jin-hang went 3-for-4 in his first Futures League game after the demotion last Wednesday, and hit a solo home run two days later.

Choi Jin-hang is a defensive liability in left field, and Choi Won-ho initially defended that demotion by saying he wanted to bolster his defense and pitching. Before Sunday's game, though, the interim manager offered a mea culpa.

"When Jin-hang first came up, he was rushed back from his injury, and I thought he should go back down to the minors and get into better physical condition," the skipper said. "But we could have used him up here. We missed him."

Choi Jin-hang will most likely return to the Eagles' lineup Thursday. The manager also hinted that Lee could be brought back up.

Lee homered in consecutive Futures League games on Friday and Saturday.

"Earlier in the season, Lee Sung-yul couldn't even make decent contact during batting practice. That's how terrible his slump was," Choi Won-ho said. "And it's been encouraging to hear that he's turned things around in the Futures League. I expect to be able to put out a lineup with a bit more power starting Thursday."

The Eagles are going to need all the power they can secure this week, as they'll run into the league's two best teams.

From Tuesday to Thursday, the Eagles will host the second-ranked LG Twins, who boast the KBO's lowest ERA at 4.09. Then starting on Friday, the Eagles will visit the best team in the league, the NC Dinos, for a weekend series.

The Dinos have the KBO's most lethal offense, with a league-leading 55 home runs, 243 runs scored and a .305/.382/.504 line.

The Dinos feature four players inside the top 10 in the RBI department: Aaron Altherr (35), Kang Jin-sung (31), Na Sung-bum (31) and Yang Eui-ji (30). These four players have driven in more runs (127) than the entire Eagles team (111). (Yonhap)