Players with the KT Wiz celebrate after shutting out the Samsung Lions in a tiebreaker game on Sunday to capture the regular season crown the Korea Baseball Organization. (Yonhap)
The seven-year wait is over. The KT Wiz, once a perennial doormat in South Korean baseball, are now headed to the championship series for the first time.
The Wiz shut out the Samsung Lions 1-0 in a tiebreaker game on Sunday to capture the regular season crown in the Korea Baseball Organization. As the pennant winners, the Wiz earned a bye to the best-of-seven Korean Series, which begins on Nov. 14.
Starter William Cuevas tossed seven shutout innings and struck out eight on two days' rest, and Kang Baek-ho's RBI single in the sixth provided the only run of the tightly contested game at Daegu Samsung Lions Park in Daegu, some 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
The Wiz and the Lions concluded their 144-game regular season on Saturday knotted at 76-59-9 (wins-losses-ties), setting up the first tiebreaker game in the KBO since 1986.
The Wiz, which joined the KBO as an expansion team in 2015, will now try to win their first championship. The Wiz finished last in each of their first three seasons and ended the 2018 season in ninth out of 10 teams.
They made their serious postseason push in 2019, when they finished two games out of a wild card spot in sixth. Then in 2020, they posted the second-best regular season record and made the postseason for the first time.
And now they've taken another step closer to their inaugural championship. In 33 previous Korean Series held under the current playoff format, the top seed has won the title 27 times.
KT manager Lee Kang-chul said he won't settle for just reaching the Korean Series for the first time in team history.
"We want to create even more history for our franchise," Lee said. "Cuevas dominated the game today. He really sacrificed himself for the team, and he was unbelievable today."
Sunday's loss sent the Lions straight to the second round of the postseason. They're back in the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
The two starting pitchers, Cuevas for the Wiz and Won Tae-in for the Lions, matched each other pitch for pitch in a memorable duel. Then in the top of the sixth, Kang broke a string of zeroes for the Wiz with a two-out RBI single off Won, who'd no-hit the Wiz through the first five innings.
The rally began with a throwing error by Samsung shortstop Oh Sun-jin, who fielded a tricky grounder by Shim Woo-jun but yanked his throw to first. That allowed Shim to reach second, and he later moved to third on a groundout. Two batters later, Kang cashed him in with a single to left field.
The Lions stranded two runners in scoring position in the bottom seventh. Koo Ja-wook drew a leadoff walk from Cuevas and advanced to third when right fielder Jared Hoying dropped a fly ball off the bat of Oh Jae-il.
Oh was thrown out at second on the play, but then Jose Pirela worked a six-pitch walk to represent the go-ahead run.
Cuevas dug deep. He got Kang Min-ho to pop out to second. After Lee Won-suk got behind 0-2 at the plate, Pirela stole second to move himself into scoring position. At 2-2 count, Cuevas struck out Lee on a cutter to keep the Lions off the board.
The Wiz escaped a mini-rally by the Lions in the bottom eighth.
Kim Ji-chan hit a one-out single off reliever Park Si-young -- only the second base hit by the Lions in the game -- and advanced to second on a groundout by Oh Sun-jin.
Closer Kim Jae-yoon, who'd replaced Park at a 2-0 count on Oh, then retired Park Hae-min on a groundout to keep the Wiz in front.
Kim returned for the ninth and retired the final three batters to lock down the win.
Cuevas allowed just one hit, an infield single by Oh in the fourth, while striking out eight. Won was the hard-luck loser after holding the Wiz to just two hits and striking out eight across six innings. The lone Wiz run was unearned.
The postseason will begin Monday with a wild card game between the fourth-seed Doosan Bears and the fifth-seed Kiwoom Heroes at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul.
The winner will face the No. 3 seed LG Twins in the first round. The winning team of that series will go on to play the Lions in the next round.
The stadiums will fully reopen for the postseason under eased COVID-19 restrictions, though fans must be either fully vaccinated or have tested negative for the virus within 48 hours of the game. (Yonhap)