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Out of playoff contention, Nexen Heroes look to reap individual honors

All Headlines 14:35 September 21, 2012

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Sept. 21 (Yonhap) -- The Seoul-based Nexen Heroes have fallen out of playoff contention in the nation's top baseball league, but the club could still reap major individual honors this year.

The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) club entered their Friday night game against the Hanwha Eagles six games out of the fourth and the final playoff spot, currently held down by the Doosan Bears. The Heroes will have 11 games left after Friday. They're mathematically alive in the race for the postseason but will need a comeback of historic proportions to overtake the Bears.

The team has instead begun looking for other sources for motivation in the season's final stretch.

The Heroes fired Kim Si-jin as their manager earlier this week, and bench coach Kim Sung-kap has been named the interim manager. The team won all three games under the new leadership entering Friday night's tilt, and Kim Sung-kap has made no secret of his desire to give players opportunities to pad their individual statistics.

"Baseball is a game of numbers and records," Kim said. "If players post good numbers, it will mean a lot to them individually. I think this will give them extra motivation for the rest of the season."

The Heroes have a strong most valuable player (MVP) candidate in Park Byung-ho, the team's cleanup hitter who led the KBO with 29 home runs, 97 runs batted in (RBI) and a .559 slugging percentage through Thursday.

On the mound, right-hander Brandon Knight has won the league-best 15 games, and his 2.27 earned run average (ERA) also leads the KBO. The 36-year-old American owns the second-best winning percentage with a 15-3 record, a year after he led the KBO with 15 losses.

The KBO doesn't have an equivalent of the Cy Young Award in Major League Baseball (MLB), which is given to the top pitcher in the American League and National League each year. Since the KBO began in 1982, pitchers have won the league MVP in 12 seasons.

Still, Knight's numbers may not be enough to beat a slugger with 30 or more home runs and 100 or more RBIs in an offense-starved season.

Changes to the MVP voting this year should also help the case for Park. Until last year, players' performances in the regular season plus the playoffs were taken into consideration in voting by baseball journalists. That essentially eliminated top players on non-playoff teams from the MVP race. Those who enjoyed an excellent regular season only to falter in the playoffs were also often overlooked by voters.

In the KBO history, only two MVPs have come from clubs that didn't make the playoffs: catcher Lee Man-soo in 1983 for the Samsung Lions and pitcher Son Min-han for the Lotte Giants in 2005.

In 1985, first baseman Kim Sung-han of the Haitai Tigers was voted the MVP, but there were no playoffs that year. From 1982 to 1988, KBO seasons were divided into two parts and the top teams from the first and the second halves met in the championship Korean Series. The Lions ranked first in both halves in 1985 and the KBO didn't hold the Korean Series.

The Heroes may match that feat this year, especially if Park can reach a milestone.

At 29 homers and 17 steals, Park sits three steals away from joining the "20-20" club, for players who hit at least 20 home runs and steal at least 20 bases in a season. His teammate at shortstop, Kang Jung-ho, became the 34th member of the club in league history earlier this week.

Park, listed at 185 centimeters and 97 kilograms, had just 11 steals in 239 games before this season. Interim manager Kim said he wants to help the nimble slugger join the club.

"I will try to give him the green light (on base) as much as I can," Kim said. "Entering the club would mean a lot both to the player and the team."

Park and Kang are No. 4 and No. 5 hitters in a lineup that has hit the second-most home runs in the KBO. Typically, hitters in the middle of the lineup aren't expected to contribute much in the steals department. Kim, the interim manager, said Park and Kang have changed that perception.

"Players in the heart of the lineup are supposed to be the slowest, but we're about to have our two sluggers in the 20-20 club," Kim said. "You never know when we will get this opportunity again."

In 1997, the Haitai Tigers, currently the Kia Tigers, and the Lions became the first teams to produce multiple players in the 20-20 club in the same season. Each had two such players.

Park, who has blossomed into a fearsome slugger in his first full season at age 26, said he isn't concerned with his stats.

"My goal is to finish the season on a positive note," he said. "I am not worried about the 20-20 club. I just look for signs from our coaches to run."

He admitted he is surprised by his own performances this year.

"Who'd have thought a player like me would be even mentioned as an MVP contender," he said. "It'd be an honor just to have my name alongside other candidates. I didn't think I would have so many home runs and RBIs this year."

The Heroes appear to have another major individual award wrapped up. Second baseman Seo Geon-chang leads all first-year players with a .281 average and 37 steals and should be a shoo-in for the Rookie of the Year award.

He trails Tigers' Lee Yong-kyu by three for the league lead in steals, and interim manager Kim said he would help the 23-year-old finish with the most base swipes in the KBO this season.


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