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(Yonhap Interview) First season back from Japan, slugger Lee Seung-yeop feels at home in KBO

All Headlines 11:26 August 31, 2012

SEOUL, Aug. 31 (Yonhap) -- In his first season back from an eight-season stint in Japan, Lee Seung-yeop, a slugger for the Samsung Lions in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), says he has been enjoying himself a lot more on the field.

Stress of competing overseas is now a distant memory for Lee, who is ranked in the top-five in most major offensive categories. The 36-year-old is also eight home runs away from breaking the KBO's career home run mark of 351, held by former Lions teammate Yang Joon-hyuk. Lee has hit 20 homers so far this season.

Powered by Lee's offensive prowess, the Lions, the defending league champions, are in first place, leading the No. 2 Lotte Giants by five games through Thursday with 27 games left this season. The first-place finish in the regular season will send the Lions straight to the championship Korean Series. It would be the team's third straight appearance in the final.

In a phone interview with Yonhap News Agency, Lee credited his stress-free days for his success.

"I can do whatever I want to do in the clubhouse. I just have a lot of fun around the guys," said Lee, the team's second-oldest player behind the 38-year-old catcher Jin Kab-yong. "In the past, there were days when I got down on myself and wanted to take some time off. But lately, I've become more positive. If things don't go well, I just tell myself I can practice harder and I will get better."

Lee played eight seasons, from 2004 to 2011, for three clubs in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), after winning five Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards in the KBO. He had also led the KBO in home runs five times and in runs batted in (RBI) four times. In 2003, he set the KBO's all-time single season record with 56 home runs and 144 RBIs.

But he went through ups and downs in Japan. After enjoying early success with the Chiba Lotte Marines and later the Yomiuri Giants, Lee ended his Japanese career by hitting just .201 with 15 home runs for the Orix Buffaloes.

Lee acknowledged he competed under the constant pressure of trying to do his country proud. And he didn't quite feel at home in Japan.

"On road trips in Japan, I would mostly stay at the hotel," he said. "But here, I have friends all over the country, and I enjoy road games, too."

Lee is fourth in the league with a .312 average, third with 20 homers and third with 74 RBIs. And he's also second in the league with 72 runs scored. It's a category usually dominated by leadoff hitters, and Lee quipped, "My manager, Ryu Joong-il, never takes me out of games."

Lee said his fast start over the season's first 20 games set the right tone for the rest of the way.

"If I had hit below .200 early on, then I would have pressed the panic button," said Lee, who batted .342 in his first 20 games with five home runs and 15 RBIs. "I'd prepared myself believing those first 20 games would make or break my entire year, and thankfully, it worked out okay."

Lee also praised his teammates for their efforts.

"Our team has won a few titles (in 2005, 2006 and 2011 in Lee's absence), and I think the young guys now know what it takes to win," he said. "Their ability to respond to different situations has also improved. We have more confidence in each other that we can score a couple of runs and stifle the other team with our pitching."

Before Lee left for Japan, he and the Lions defeated the LG Twins in six games to win the 2002 Korean Series. In one of the most dramatic finishes in KBO playoff history, Lee hit a game-tying, three-run home run with one out in the bottom of the ninth in Game 6. Then Ma Hae-young belted the walk-off solo shot for a 10-9 victory that clinched the title.

But Lee had only gone 2-for-20 in the first five games of that year's Korean Series. He called the experience "a failure" for himself.

"This year, I really want to help the team win the championship," Lee said. "In 2002, I didn't play well, and my teammates did all the work."

Lee said he will try to shorten his swing as the playoffs approach and not to worry about setting the career home run record this year.

"I need to hit eight more homers for the record, but if I become too conscious of that, it will throw off my swing," Lee said. "I've been working on shortening my swing. I don't want to suffer the pain of failing again."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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