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Behind strong pitching, Landers run table in KBO in 1st half

SSG Landers players celebrate their 4-1 victory over the Kiwoom Heroes in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Incheon SSG Landers Field in Incheon, 30 kilometers west of Seoul, on Thursday. (Yonhap)
SSG Landers players celebrate their 4-1 victory over the Kiwoom Heroes in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Incheon SSG Landers Field in Incheon, 30 kilometers west of Seoul, on Thursday. (Yonhap)

As they enter the midseason break for the 2022 South Korean baseball season, the SSG Landers find themselves exactly where they started the proceedings three months ago: first place.

The Landers defeated the Kiwoom Heroes 4-1 on Thursday night to arrive at the All-Star break in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) on a six-game winning streak. At 57-26-3 (wins-losses-ties), they lead the Heroes (54-32-1) by 4.5 games.

The Landers have been in first place for 103 days and 86 games since the start of the season, both of them new league records.

The LG Twins (52-31-1) are half a game behind the Heroes in third place, and the trio have separated themselves from the rest of the pack with some 60 games remaining this season.

The Landers boast the KBO's most devastating one-two punch in their starting rotation, with second-year import Wilmer Font and franchise icon Kim Kwang-hyun, back after two years with the St. Louis Cardinals, having combined for 20 victories. Kim (1.65) and Font (1.96) are also first and second in the KBO in ERA, respectively.

The Landers have been dominant despite subpar production from their two other foreign players: starter Ivan Nova and first baseman Kevin Cron. Both have been released, with starter Shawn Morimando and outfielder Juan Lagares set to join the Landers for their second-half push.

The Heroes, after losing some veteran boppers in free agency and trade, have been riding stout pitching to the second-best record to date. An Woo-jin is third in ERA at 2.02 and second in strikeouts with 125, finally putting it all together as the dominant starter in his fifth season. Outfielder Lee Jung-hoo is enjoying an MVP-type season as the Heroes' offensive leader.

The Twins' two American starters, Casey Kelly and Adam Plutko, have gone a combined 21-5 with a 2.63 ERA, giving the Font-Kim duo a run for their money as the league's best starting pitching tandem.

The KT Wiz (44-38-2), defending Korean Series champions, overcame a sluggish start to climb to fourth place at the break, but they trail the Twins by 7.5 games despite going 9-1 in their last 10.

Veteran slugger Park Byung-ho, who signed with the Wiz as a free agent after a successful run with the Heroes, is enjoying a renaissance season at 36. He leads the KBO with 27 home runs, seven more than all of last season, and already has 70 RBIs through 81 games, only six shy from his total in 118 games in 2021.

The Kia Tigers, having cooled off after a torrid month of May, are holding down the fifth and final postseason spot at 42-40-1, two games behind the Wiz.

The Lotte Giants (38-44-3) closed out the first half on a four-game winning streak but still sit four games behind the Tigers in sixth. Their designated hitter, Lee Dae-ho, who will retire after this season at age 40, is doing his best to keep the perennially underachieving team in the race, as he leads the KBO with a .341 batting average.

The Giants are followed by two playoff contestants from last season that have been hugely disappointing so far in 2022.

The Doosan Bears (36-46-2) have played in a record seven consecutive Korean Series, dating back to 2015, but that streak will likely come to an end this year.

Ariel Miranda, who won the regular season MVP last season while leading the Bears' rotation, was cut this week after pitching only 7 2/3 innings across three starts this year due to shoulder problems. Multiple winters of losing key contributors in free agency appear to have finally caught up to the Bears, too.

The Samsung Lions tied the Wiz for the best regular season record in 2021, before losing the tiebreaker game and settling for the second seed. But they have reached the break mired in a franchise-worst 11-game losing streak, which has dropped them to 35-50.

They are just one game above the NC Dinos, so far the only club to have undergone a managerial change this year.

Regarded as a playoff contender, the Dinos stumbled out of the gate with a 9-24 start, costing skipper Lee Dong-wook his job. Under interim manager Kang In-kwon, the Dinos have gone 23-25-2, still not nearly enough to challenge for a postseason spot.

The Hanwha Eagles are in a familiar place at the bottom of the standings. They have been the KBO's worst team in each of the past two seasons, and at 25-59-1, they could become the first team ever to lose 100 games in the KBO.

Earlier this season, the Eagles became the first KBO club to lose at least 10 games in a row in three straight years.

The All-Star Game is Saturday at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul, and the regular season will resume next Friday. (Yonhap)

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