Members of the Kiwoom Heroes bow their heads before a section of their fans at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul on Tuesday, after losing to the Doosan Bears 16-8 in the second wild card game in the Korea Baseball Organization postseason. (Yonhap)
From the topsy-turvy regular season to the bitter, early ending to the postseason, things have been all too familiar for the Kiwoom Heroes this year.
The Heroes lost to the Doosan Bears 16-8 in the second wild card game Tuesday night to take an exit from the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) postseason. They also fell in the wild card stage last year.
As the lower seed at No. 5, the Heroes had to win two straight games to advance. They took care of the first part of business Monday, when they rallied for a 7-4 victory. But the fourth-seed Bears, which only needed a tie Tuesday to move on, came out swinging early en route to an easy win.
The loss put a merciful end to yet another tumultuous season for a franchise that has seen too many of those during its 14-year existence.
Neither of the club's new foreign players, pitcher Josh A. Smith and hitter David Freitas, panned out this year. Smith was cut in April after only two starts and Freitas was gone by June after 43 games.
The Heroes replaced Smith with their former ace Jake Brigham, who'd pitched for them from 2017 to 2020 and then landed in Taiwan over the winter.
Upon rejoining the KBO club, Brigham went 7-3 with a 2.95 ERA.
But he returned to the United States in July to tend to some family matters, never to come back to Korea. The Heroes formally parted ways with Brigham in September.
Two other starters, Han Hyun-hee and An Woo-jin, were suspended for 51 games and 36 games, respectively, in the summer for breaching COVID-19 protocols. Hong had once declared that he wouldn't use those pitchers the rest of the season even after their suspension ended to send a strong message. But with the Heroes trying to get into the postseason, Hong did an about-face and allowed both to return to the mound for the final stretch.
An looked dominant at times in getting a no-decision in the first wild card game, while Han got knocked around for five runs on eight hits in 2 1/3 innings in the next game.
The Heroes lost All-Star shortstop Kim Ha-seong to the San Diego Padres over the winter, and never replaced his 30-home run, 100-RBI production. Two-time MVP Park Byung-ho, 35, struggled to a .227 batting average and 20 home runs in 118 games while also spending time in the minors.
The Heroes did sneak into the postseason by winning their final three regular season games, but it came at a cost.
The Heroes had to start their ace Eric Jokisch in the must-win regular season finale Saturday. He won his league-leading 16th game against the Kia Tigers that day but wasn't available for either of the wild card games, which took place only two and three days after his last start.
The Heroes will also rue their 10-14 record in April, the only month this year in which the Heroes had a sub-.500 record.
First-year manager Hong Won-ki said last week that losing so many games early in the season still gnawed at him and reiterated that point after Tuesday's loss.
"We had some regulars go down with injuries from the start of the season, and we weren't at full strength early on," Hong said.
"We went through a lot of ups and downs, and I made mistakes along the way. Things wouldn't have been this difficult if we'd played better early in the season."
One bright spot for the club is the continued development of outfielder Lee Jung-hoo. The 23-year-old captured his first career batting title in his fifth season at .360. In two wild card games, Lee batted 5-for-9 with five RBIs, two of them coming in the ninth inning of the Heroes' 7-4 victory Monday. (Yonhap)