(ATTN: ADDS starting pitching matchups in paras 13-14, 20-22)
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, April 24 (Yonhap) — The two best teams in South Korean baseball will clash for the first time this season starting Tuesday, each looking to set an early tone in the race for the pennant.
On the heels of a four-game winning streak, the SSG Landers have reclaimed the top spot in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) at 12-6. They are in a virtual tie with the LG Twins, who are 13-7 and trail the Landers only in the winning percentage, .667 to .650.
Their first three-game series of the season goes from Tuesday to Thursday at the Twins home, Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul.
The Landers are the defending champions who spent the entire 2022 regular season in first place. They won’t repeat the second part of that equation this time, though they certainly appear capable of winning their second straight Korean Series crown.
Now under their third manager in four seasons, the Twins are looking to end a title drought that dates back to 1994.
Through 20 games, the Twins have been the best offensive team in the KBO, with a league-best 119 runs scored. They also lead the league in all triple slashing categories, with a .292 batting average, a .385 on-base percentage and a .408 slugging percentage. They’re batting a league-high .352 with runners in scoring position and they’ve drawn the most walks in the league with 102 — with no one else even in the 90s.
The Twins are the runaway leader in the steals department with 34, 10 more than the next-best team, NC Dinos. The Twins have also been caught a league-worst 21 times: eight out of the 10 teams in the league haven’t even stolen that many bags.
It’s certainly not a sustainable formula for success. As much as the constant threat of stealing will keep opposing batteries and middle infielders on their toes, it can also take its toll on the runners and put them at risk of injuries.
The Landers, for their part, have attempted only 13 steals and have been successful on nine of them.
They’re mostly getting it done with pitching, as they are second in the league with a 3.32 ERA, just behind the Twins. The Landers’ pitching staff has allowed the fewest hits per nine innings pitched (7.71) and the lowest opponents batting average (.232).
Notably, their first-year foreign starter Kirk McCarty hasn’t allowed an earned run in his past 20 innings, a stretch that saw his season ERA go from 21.60 to 3.09.
The left-hander was roughed up for 10 hits in 3 1/3 innings in his KBO debut on April 2, but followed that up with six innings of one-hit ball and then seven hitless frames. On Saturday, McCarty matched his season-high with six strikeouts in a no-decision against the Heroes.
The Landers will have right-hander Moon Seung-won on the hill Tuesday against fellow right-hander Casey Kelly.
Pitching in his fifth KBO season, Kelly is going through his worst stretch in South Korea, having served up 21 runs — four unearned — on 29 hits in his first 23 2/3 innings over four starts. He sports a 6.46 ERA, second-to-worst among the 30 qualified starters in the KBO this year.
Also this week, Doosan Bears skipper Lee Seung-yuop will pay his first visit to his old stomping ground in Daegu, 237 kilometers southeast of Seoul, as an opposing manager, with the Bears taking on the Samsung Lions in a three-game set starting Tuesday.
Lee, the KBO’s career leader with 467 home runs, spent his entire 15-year KBO career with the Lions. His image still graces a wall in the right field stands at Daegu Samsung Lions Park.
The Bears are riding a three-game winning streak, which has lifted them to third place. The Lions, however, have dropped four in a row to fall to ninth place.
In Seoul, two teams mired in a three-game slide, the Kiwoom Heroes and the KT Wiz, will go at it at Gocheok Sky Dome starting Tuesday.
The Heroes are still waiting for the 2022 MVP, Lee Jung-hoo, to find his groove at the plate. The two-time reigning batting champion is hitting just .197 after 17 games.
The starting pitching matchup on Tuesday will pit two hard throwers against each other: An Woo-jin for the Heroes against Um Sang-back for the Wiz.
An is the reigning ERA and strikeout king who is once again leading the way in strikeouts this year with 39 in 25 innings. He leads all qualified pitchers with an average fastball velocity of 154.6 kilometers per hour.
Um will be making his second start of the season after tossing five shutout innings last Wednesday. Returning from some elbow problems, Um touched 148 kph in his season debut.
The Lotte Giants will have a chance to extend their four-game series when they host last-place Hanwha Eagles for three games beginning Tuesday.
The Kia Tigers, winners of three straight games, will host the NC Dinos, who’ve lost five in a row, for their own three-game series.