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Losing streak snapped, Lotte Giants renew focus on getting playoff bye

All Headlines 15:04 September 24, 2012

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Sept. 24 (Yonhap) -- In a matter of days, the Lotte Giants in the nation's top baseball league went from a championship contender to a team that looked as though they didn't belong in the postseason, as they plodded through their longest losing streak of the season.

The Busan-based Giants of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) finally ended the seven-game skid on Sunday, and their manager said Monday the team will play out the regular season with a renewed focus.

The Giants snapped their seven-game slide with a 3-1 win over the LG Twins, as Son Ah-seop hit a tie-breaking, two-run single in the bottom of the seventh.

The Giants' playoff berth had long been secured. Of the eight KBO teams, the top four reach the postseason, and the Giants haven't fallen out of the top four since jumping from fifth to third on May 25. The seven-game slide, though, saw the Giants fall from second to third place. They led the SK Wyverns by 2.5 games in second place on Sept. 13, but now trail the Wyverns by that same margin in third through Sunday. The Wyverns had 65 wins, 53 losses and three ties after Sunday, while the Giants sat at a 63-56-6 record, having played four more games than SK.

The Doosan Bears were in fourth place, only one game back of the Giants at 62-57-3 with three games in hand.

The defending champions Samsung Lions are running away with the pennant, as they lead the Wyverns by 5.5 games at 71-48-2. It leaves the Wyverns, the Giants and the Bears fighting for second, and Lotte manager Yang Seung-ho said the Giants' battle isn't over yet.

"It's too early to give up on that fight," Yang said. "I know we have a lot of injured players, but we're mathematically alive in the race."

The Giants' late-season swoon has the league's most passionate fan base all fretful. The Giants on Sunday became the first KBO team in the league's 30-year history to draw at least 1 million home fans in five straight seasons, but even the die-hard supporters of the team would be hard pressed to stay optimistic over their club's chances of winning the championship.

Their plight has been exacerbated by injuries to key players. Catcher Kang Min-ho, who leads the Giants with 19 home runs, suffered a concussion and also injured his back in a home plate collision with SK's Kim Kang-min last Tuesday. Second baseman Cho Sung-hwan, the team's elder statesman, has missed action with an ankle injury. First baseman Park Jong-yoon suffered a freak injury to his left cheekbone last Thursday when his own foul hit the ground near the home plate and popped back up to nail him in the face. Park will undergo surgery and has been ruled out for the rest of the season.

Left-handed starter Shane Youman, third in the KBO with 13 wins in his first Korean season, has skipped a turn in his start with a left-foot ailment and will return early next month.

Yang believes once the Giants are back in full strength or close to it, they can still make a run in second place. And there's a good reason why teams, if the first place is out of reach, are so intent on finishing second.

In the KBO playoffs, the top regular season club advances straight to the championship Korean Series. The No. 3 and No. 4 clubs meet in a best-of-five first round. The winner of that series goes into a best-of-five second round to face the No. 2 club. The Korean Series is a best-of-seven affair.

Entering the playoff as a third or a fourth seed means a maximum five extra games, and intense, pressure-packed playoff games at that. Finish at least in second place, and the team will get at least a few days off to regroup and rest key players.

Since the current playoff format was introduced in 1989, only two third-place teams, the 1992 Giants and the 2001 Bears, and just one fourth seed, the 1999 Hanwha Eagles, have won the Korean Series.

Yang said while his players will do the best they can to overtake the Wyverns, he has no intention to push them any harder than necessary. A playoff berth is almost a certainty, and he said he doesn't want to see any more injuries.

"Given our injury situation and our recent losing streak, the most important thing is to change the mood in the clubhouse (for the better)," the manager said. "It's crucial that we enter the playoffs on a better note."

Baseball analysts opined that the Wyverns are better positioned to finish the season as the No. 2 seed. Last year, they became the first KBO team ever to reach five consecutive Korean Series, and look poised to extend the streak to six this fall. They have won three titles since 2007, and key veterans from those championship squads still form the core of this year's team.

Heo Koo-youn, a commentator for MBC, said the Wyverns' experience in handling late season pressure will make the difference in the end.

"Lotte and to some extent Doosan have too many injuries to catch SK now," he said. "The Giants will need their reserves to step up. Baseball is certainly an unpredictable sport. but the Wyverns appear to have an upper hand."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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