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Samsung Lions roaring toward third straight KBO championship

All Headlines 15:23 May 13, 2013

SEOUL, May 13 (Yonhap) -- Here come the Lions.

The Samsung Lions, the two-time defending champ in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), have roared out of the gate in May. They're in the midst of a six-game winning streak that has catapulted them to second place at 19-10, just one game behind the Nexen Heroes with two games in hand.

The Lions have won the past two KBO crowns, and they're looking to become only the second KBO team to win three consecutive championships.

After the first 15 games of this season through April 23, the Lions sat at 9-6, not a terrible start but only good for fifth place. Manager Ryu Joong-il vowed then that his team would turn things around in their next 15 games.

Ryu proved to be quite the prophet, as the Lions have won 10 of the 14 games they've played since that day.

The Lions swept the Lotte Giants in their three-game series on the road in Busan from May 3 to 5. Then after four days off, the Lions picked up right where they left off, beating the Kia Tigers in three straight games starting last Friday.

The weekend sweep improved Samsung's record against Kia to 5-1 this year. The Tigers have been regarded as the potential Korean Series opponent to the Lions but at least in the early going, Samsung has the upper hand.

In 2012, the Lions had an even slower start than this year and were mired in seventh place as late as May 29. Their bullpen, traditionally the team's strength, and opportunistic offense carried the Lions to third place by late June. They didn't relinquish the top spot after July 8.

This year, the Lions have boasted a more lethal combination of pitching and offense. Their team ERA of 3.57 tops the league. Three starting pitchers -- Bae Young-soo, Yoon Sung-hwan and Jang Won-sam -- share the league lead with four victories apiece. Closer Oh Seung-hwan, already the KBO's all-time leader with 257 saves, is in great form once again, with eight saves in 12 appearances and a minuscule 0.73 ERA. He has struck out 18 in 12 1/3 innings.

Their offense leads the league with a .291 average and is second with a .411 slugging percentage. Bae, the team's leadoff man, has the KBO's best batting average of .370 and the best on-base percentage of .471.

When Bae gets on base, sluggers behind him often drive him home. Lee Seung-yeop, closing in on the KBO's all-time record of 351 home runs, has overcome a slow start and has gone 5-for-10 with four RBIs and four runs scored in his last three games. Chae Tae-in is also wielding a hot bat and is 6-for-13 with three RBIs in his last four games.

The Lions' 5-4 victory over the Tigers on Sunday further illustrated the team's strengths. The Lions trailed 4-1 heading into the bottom eighth and scored four runs in that frame for the win, thanks to timely hits by unlikely sources.

With one out and a runner on first, the Tigers sent Song Eun-beom, acquired in a trade with the SK Wyverns last week, to the mound. Chae greeted Song with a single, and then Woo Dong-gyun, a part-time player, launched a pinch-hit double to make it 4-2 for the Tigers.

The next batter, a light-hitting infielder Cho Dong-chan, followed that up with a two-run double to tie the game. Then Lee Ji-young, the team's No. 8 hitter, drove in the go-ahead run with a single.

Oh, the closer, took the mound in the top ninth, and struck out the side with just 14 pitches.

Ryu, the manager, said after the game he was proud of his players for not giving up until the end. He also tried to downplay the significance of his team's recent surge, saying the Lions' position in May "means nothing" to their championship aspirations.

Ryu has the luxury of depth at multiple positions, including at first base and behind the plate, and that has allowed him to give veterans some breathers. Ryu has often replaced aging players in late innings, regardless of the scores, to rest them.

On Sunday, for instance, starting catcher Jin Kap-yong, the team's elder statesman at age 39, was replaced by Lee Ji-young after two at-bats. Lee Seung-yeop, normally the team's first baseman, started as the designated hitter Sunday, while Chae Tae-in played first. Starting third baseman Park Seok-min began Sunday's game on the bench, with utility man Cho Dong-chan sliding over from his usual position at second to third and Shin Myung-chul starting as the second baseman.

"When I was a player, I found it helpful for my conditioning and stamina when managers took me out of the game after a couple of at-bats," said Ryu, a former All-Star shortstop in the 1980s. "It's a long season and everyone needs to have breaks along the way."

Ryu has shown faith in his veterans and refused to move struggling hitters up and down the batting order, as other managers tend to do.

"When your established players are playing poorly, I think it's better to give them some rest," Ryu said. "Personally, I don't like moving sluggers down the batting order just because they're in a slump."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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