By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Oct. 30 (Yonhap) -- A time-worn baseball adage says pitching and defense win championships. Four games into the championship final in South Korean baseball, though, you can forget about at least the pitching part.
The Samsung Lions and the SK Wyverns are knotted at 2-2 in the best-of-seven Korean Series. And whoever claims the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) crown, it will likely be in spite of their pitching, because the series has turned into a home run slugfest.
This is the third straight Korean Series between these two teams, and much like the previous two meetings, this one was expected to come down to pitching, in particular the teams' bullpens. Over recent seasons, these two have built a fairly simple winning formula: build a lead, call the bullpen at the earliest possible moment and let multiple relievers take care of a narrow victory.
Regular season numbers bore out the strength of their relief pitching. SK was 19-13 in one-run games, the league's best winning percentage. The Lions were 72-2 in games in which they had a lead through seven innings, also the KBO's highest winning percentage in that situation.
Through the first four games, though, there hasn't yet been a memorable outing, either by starters or relievers, in a type of a game that can turn ordinary pitchers into postseason heroes.
Instead, there have been plenty of homers. Nine balls have left the yard, already three more than last year's Korean Series, which ended in five games for the Lions. And almost all of the nine home runs have been meaningful shots that have either given teams a lead or started a rally from a deficit.
The Lions' Lee Seung-yeop hit a two-run shot in their 3-1 victory in Game 1. Then in the next game, Choi Hyung-woo hit a grand slam, only the third ever hit in the Korean Series, as the Lions won 8-3.
The Lions appeared well on their way to a third straight victory in Game 3, as Choi belted a three-run shot to stake the team to a 6-1 lead after three. The Wyverns fought back with three home runs of their own, including a three-run blasted by Kim Kang-min in a six-run sixth inning, and ended up taking the game 12-8.
They Wyverns were at it again in Game 4 on Monday. Samsung starter Mitch Talbot was perfect through 3 1/3, and then Park Jae-sang got SK's first hit of the game with a solo homer. Choi Jeong, the next batter, launched another solo home run for a 2-0 lead. The Wyverns prevailed 4-1 to even the Korean Series.
The Wyverns led the KBO with 108 homers in 133 regular season games this year. And given that manager Lee Man-soo was a free-swinging slugger during his All-Star playing career, the Wyverns' aggressive approach at the plate shouldn't be surprising.
"I told the players before the game (Monday) that they should swing with confidence," said Lee, who led the KBO in homers in three different seasons as a catcher for the Lions in the 1980s. "I said they should keep swinging even if they strike out because they can't get their timing down otherwise."
The manager admitted some playoff nerves led to several swings and misses in the first two games, but added it shouldn't discourage the players from hacking away.
"You can't be a good player if you're afraid of striking out," Lee said. "Our guys strike out a lot, but we also hit a ton of homers. There have been many games this year that we were able to win thanks to long balls."
The fifth game of the Korean Series will be played at Jamsil Stadium, a neutral venue in Seoul, at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Under a KBO rule designed to draw more fans, if a team with the home field advantage in the Korean Series plays at a park with a capacity smaller than 25,000, Games 5 through 7, if necessary, come to Jamsil, which seats 27,000 in the country's biggest market.
The Lions hold the home field thanks to their first-place finish in the regular season. They will serve as the home team and bat last in Game 5 and, if necessary, Game 7.
Their home park, Daegu Baseball Stadium, holds only 10,000, according to the KBO.
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