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KBO clubs to dive into preseason amid surge in COVID-19 cases

Members of the KT Wiz pose for a group photo after completing the first phase of their spring training at Gijang-Hyundai Motor Dream Ballpark in Busan, 450 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on Sunday, in this photo provided by the Wiz. (Wiz)
Members of the KT Wiz pose for a group photo after completing the first phase of their spring training at Gijang-Hyundai Motor Dream Ballpark in Busan, 450 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on Sunday, in this photo provided by the Wiz. (Wiz)

Even with no light visible at the end of the tunnel that is the COVID-19 pandemic, the South Korean baseball league plans to forge ahead with a full slate of regular season games in 2022.

The first step toward that objective will come in the form of a preseason, which starts Saturday for all 10 teams.

The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) has scheduled 16 exhibition games per team through March 29. All games are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m., though teams can ask the league to push some games to evening hours so their player can get acclimated to playing under lights. There will be no extra innings, and rained-out games will not be made up.

Teams will have two Wednesdays off during the preseason, March 16 and then March 23, but will have games on all other days.

All 10 clubs began their spring training in the first week of February. Because of travel restrictions in place during the pandemic, they stayed home for the second straight spring, instead of flocking to places such as Florida, Arizona or Okinawa in search of warmer conditions.

They have been playing some unofficial scrimmages since late February, and they will now start ratcheting up the intensity of their games before the start of the regular season on April 2.

Ideally, the preseason serves as the early showcase for new faces, be they domestic free agents who switched clubs over the winter or new international players with varying degrees of major league success.

There will be plenty of that this year, especially given a flurry of activity in free agency and the arrivals of some big names from overseas.

However, the pandemic will likely dominate the headlines again, since the KBO, much like the rest of the country, is not out of the woods yet.

South Korea reported 327,549 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, the second straight day in which the figure exceeded 300,000. On Wednesday, the country had a record 342,446 new cases.

The virus has been wreaking havoc on volleyball and basketball leagues since last month. The KBO hasn't been immune, with multiple clubs reporting positive cases after positive cases throughout spring training.

So far this month alone, the Doosan Bears have had 13 players fall ill with the virus. The Lotte Giants reported eight positive cases Tuesday. The NC Dinos had nearly a dozen players test positive for COVID-19 last month and a couple more so far in March.

During the regular season, if teams report positive cases, only those ailing players will be sidelined and the games will go on, business as usual. But for the preseason, the KBO is expected to play it safe with COVID-19 cases and cancel games more readily if multiple players come down with the virus.

The preseason will be held behind closed doors, ensuring safety for baseball fans and clubs alike so they could fill seats for games that count starting in April.

As long as teams can navigate this pandemic-laden preseason, there will be no shortage of storylines to follow.

Two of the league's best starting pitchers of this generation, Kim Kwang-hyun and Yang Hyeon-jong, have both returned to the KBO after ending their big league stints with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers, respectively. And both are back with their former clubs, Kim back with the SSG Landers, which were called the SK Wyverns under a different ownership when Kim pitched for them from 2007 to 2019; and Yang reuniting with the Kia Tigers, for whom he pitched from 2007 to 2020.

Yang signed his four-year, 10.3 billion won ($8.4 million) deal in December and should be ready to toe the rubber this month. Kim only inked his deal, worth a record 15.1 billion won over four years, on Tuesday and isn't expected to be ready until the early part of the regular season.

Before reacquiring Kim, the Landers had signed former New York Yankees ace Ivan Nova, who won 90 games over 11 big league seasons. The Kiwoom Heroes brought in former National League All-Star Yasiel Puig, perhaps the biggest name to arrive in the KBO in recent memory.

The Tigers made the biggest splash in domestic free agency by handing the perennial All-Star Na Sung-bum a six-year, 15 billion won contract to pluck him from the NC Dinos.

To compensate for that loss, the Dinos went out and signed two star outfielders. They acquired former Doosan Bears mainstay Park Kun-woo and signed ex-Lotte Giant Son Ah-seop, shelling out a combined 16.4 billion won on them.

The defending Korean Series champions KT Wiz signed two-time MVP Park Byung-ho on a modest, three-year, 3 billion won contract. Park, 35, had been with the Heroes for nearly a decade but will try to slow the decline that had been evident over the past two seasons. (Yonhap)



By Kim Young-won (wone0102@heraldcorp.com)
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