As the first half of the 2013 Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) season drew to a close this week, a familiar name sat atop the standings, chased by a pair of surprising contenders.
The two-time defending champions Samsung Lions are in first place at the All-Star break for the second straight season. The Lions have played in each of the past three Korean Series. The first-place team in the regular season earns the bye to the championship round, and the Lions have positioned themselves for another run at the title.
At 43-28 with two ties, the Lions are half a game ahead of the LG Twins (45-31) and three games better than the Nexen Heroes (41-32-1). The Lions moved into first place on June 9 and have stayed there since.
The Lions' strong start has largely been expected, since they returned essentially the same lineup from last year and retained the balance between quality pitching and opportunistic offense.
With two new offseason acquisitions, Rick van den Hurk and Aneury Rodriguez each going only 3-5, Jang Won-sam, tops in the KBO with 17 wins in 2012, is leading the rotation at 8-5 with a 3.35 ERA.
The Twins' surge has been the story of the first half. The Seoul-based club hasn't been to the postseason since 2002. They have teased their loyal fans with hot starts in recent seasons, only to fade away by June or July.
This year, with veterans Lee Byung-kyu and Park Yong-taek leading the way on offense and the pitching staff posting the KBO's best ERA, the Twins have sustained their run. They closed out the first half on a six-game winning streak.
In one stretch, the Twins won eight straight series and went 23-8 between May 21 and June 30, the best winning percentage in the league over that span.
The Heroes are trying to qualify for the first playoff in their five-year franchise history. The Heroes also entered last year's All-Star break in third place before injuries and inconsistent play brought them down to sixth by the season's end.
Under cerebral rookie manager Yeom Kyung-yup, the Heroes have been trying to prove detractors wrong and show they have what it takes to stay among the top four this time.
The Heroes once suffered an eight-game losing skid but followed that up with a four-game winning streak. Park Byung-ho, the reigning KBO MVP for the Heroes, is putting together another MVP-caliber season. The first baseman led the KBO in homers and RBIs in 2012, and he is once again leading the two categories.
Park's offensive prowess has mostly masked the team's issues with starting pitching. Brandon Knight has suddenly gone from the KBO's best starter in 2012, at 16-4 with the league-leading 2.20 ERA and 208 2/3 innings pitched, to a mediocre one at 6-7 with a 4.14 ERA. He walked 53 all last year and has already issued free passes to 52 batters this year.
Three clubs have engaged in a topsy-turvy race for the fourth and the final playoff spot. The Doosan Bears (40-33-2) have run their way to fourth at the break. They lead the KBO with 113 steals, 20 more than the next best team, the Kia Tigers, and 29 swipes have come in their past 17 games. The Bears closed out the first half on a 13-3-1 run with 89 runs scored.
Their much-maligned rotation has turned things around, with right-hander Noh Kyung-eun winning four straight decisions while giving up just four earned runs in his last 27 innings. Dustin Nippert has been Doosan's most consistent starter. On Wednesday, he tossed seven scoreless innings against the NC Dinos to earn his league-leading 10th win of the season, while lowering his ERA to 3.40. He is 5-1 in his last six starts.
The Tigers (36-32-2), a trendy preseason pick to win it all in 2013, have vastly underachieved to remain in fifth. Their supposed ace, right-hander Yoon Suk-min, began the season in May after dealing with a shoulder injury and has yet to find the form that saw him win the MVP and the pitching Triple Crown in 2011. He is only 2-3 with a 3.99 ERA. Yoon earned his second win on Wednesday, his first victory since May 4.
Left-hander Yang Hyun-jong had filled in nicely as the Tigers' best starter, going 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA in 14 appearances, a bounceback season after winning just eight games combined in the last two years. Yang also came down with an injury during a game on June 28 and hasn't pitched since.
The struggles of the Tigers' bullpen have been well documented, with closer Anthony Lerew ultimately losing his job after blowing a league-high four saves in 30 games. Manager Sun Dong-yol has gone with the 'closer-by-committee' approach, but Park Ji-hoon and Song Eun-beom haven't been the answer.
The Lotte Giants (37-35-2) ended the first half in sixth place, 2.5 games out of fourth, after a five-game slide. They have compensated for middling offense with solid starting pitching.
Their import duo of Shane Youman and Chris Oxspring are a combined
16-8 in 36 starts, with each having an ERA under 4.00. They're one of only two pairs of teammates with at least 100 innings pitched this season.
The SK Wyverns (34-39-1) have played in the last six Korean Series and won three of them, but they will be hard pressed to even make the playoffs this year. They remain six games out of fourth and haven't even cracked the top six since May.
The Dinos (28-45-3) have acquitted themselves well in their inaugural season. After starting out 4-17-1 in April, the Dinos have been a respectable 24-28-2, aided by an exciting offense and above-average starting pitching.
The hapless Hanwha Eagles (22-51-1) began 2013 by losing their first 13 games, the longest skid to start a season, and are destined for yet another last-place finish. They ranked eighth among eight teams in three of the past four years, and even the first-year Dinos are six games ahead of them.
Their new manager Kim Eoung-yong is the KBO leader with 1,498 wins and 10 Korean Series titles, but his first managing gig since 2004 will likely leave a major blemish on an otherwise stellar career. (Yonhap News)