By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Oct. 6 (Yonhap) -- The 2013 regular season in South Korean baseball ended with a familiar face at the top, joined in the playoffs by three clubs from the nation's capital. Two playoff fixtures in recent seasons will be on the outside looking in, while the league's most decorated franchise suffered the ignominy of finishing with a worse record than an expansion team.
The Samsung Lions won the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) pennant for the third straight season at 75-51-2. They're the first team in the league's 31-year history to pull that off, and the Lions received the bye to the championship Korean Series. They will attempt to become only the second KBO club to win at least three league titles in a row.
Playoff baseball is always unpredictable, but the Lions do know this for certain: their opponent in the Korean Series will be from Seoul.
The LG Twins, the Nexen Heroes and the Doosan Bears finished 2-3-4 in the standings, getting the final three playoff tickets. The Twins (74-54) and the Bears (71-54-3) share Jamsil Stadium in southern Seoul as their home, while the Heroes (72-54-2) are based in Mokdong Stadium in western Seoul.
The Heroes joined the KBO in 2008, giving the league three Seoul clubs for the first time. And this is the first postseason to feature all three.
Their jostling for playoff positioning came down to the last day of the regular season. In one of the most dramatic endings to a regular season, the Heroes fell to the last-place Hanwha Eagles 2-1, while the Twins defeated the Bears 5-2 on Saturday to determine the final positions.
With that, the Heroes and the Bears will meet in the best-of-five first round scheduled to start on Tuesday. The winner will go on to meet the Twins in the second round, also a best-of-five series.
The Lions will go up against the winner of the second round. The Korean Series is a best-of-seven affair.
The Lions' success had largely been expected. They had won the past two Korean Series and had retained most of their core players from those championship squads. The Lions have long been defined by great pitching and a well-balanced offense, and they proved to be their bread and butter for the Daegu-based team once again.
The Lions' accomplishment, though historic, was far from the most compelling story of the regular season. The Twins are in their first postseason since 2002, much to the delight of their loyal and long-suffering fans.
The Twins had teased their faithfuls with good starts in recent seasons, only to fade away by June or July. In 2013, they were actually slow out of the gate, sitting at just 15-21 through May 21.
However, they strung together a 24-7 stretch through early July and even reached first place in the second half of the season.
Though they seemed to run out of gas in September and October, the Twins, by virtue of finishing second, will get to enjoy a few days off until the first round is finished.
The second round is scheduled to start on Oct. 16.
The Heroes also emerged as a viable contender. Last year, they were in third place at the All-Star break but finished the season in sixth. This year, they were also in third at the end of the first half but managed to stay in the top four this time and make their first playoffs in team history.
Park Byung-ho, the reigning league MVP, has carried the Heroes all season. He put up even more impressive numbers than last year and is a shoo-in to pick up his second straight MVP award.
The slugger led the KBO with 37 home runs, 117 RBIs, 91 runs scored, 92 walks and a .602 slugging percentage. All were career-highs for the 27-year-old. He batted .318 this year, up from .290 in 2012.
Almost as spectacular as Park's dominance at the plate was the demise of the Kia Tigers, a proud owner of the league-record 10 championships. Many pundits' preseason favorite to win it all in 2013, the Tigers finished eighth among nine clubs, 1.5 games worse than the expansion NC Dinos.
The Tigers ended at 51-74-3, despite winning 15 of their first 22 games and spending the early part of the season in first place.
The freefall that began in early May brought them down to fifth place at the break at 36-32-2. They were only 1.5 games back of the Bears in fourth, and 5.5 back of the Lions in first, certainly not insurmountable with nearly 60 games remaining.
The Tigers were bitten badly by the injury bug all year. At least six regular position players, including Choi Hee-seop, a former Major League Baseball (MLB) first baseman, and Kim Joo-chan, the team's biggest offseason signing from the free agent market, were sidelined for an extended period.
Their pitching staff wasn't any healthier, with former MVP Yoon Suk-min bouncing between the rotation and the pen while dealing with the effects of a shoulder injury. Left-hander Yang Hyun-jong began the season 9-1 in 14 starts through May, more than filling Yoon's void but made just five more starts the rest of the season, going 0-2 while battling injuries to his side.
The Tigers had the worst winning percentage in the second half, going just 15-42-1.
As the Tigers suffered through a depressing end to their season, the NC Dinos, in their inaugural KBO season, showed plenty of promise.
They were just 4-17-1 at the end of April but finished on a respectable 48-55-3 run, winning 11 more games than the Tigers in that stretch.
Right-handed starter Charlie Shirek led the KBO with a 2.48 ERA, followed by his teammate and the Rookie of the Year candidate Lee Jae-hak at 2.88.
On offense, the 37-year-old veteran Lee Ho-jun, acquired from the SK Wyverns largely as a club house leader, did most of his leading on the field. He hit 20 homers and drove in 87 runs, both team-highs. It was his highest home run and RBI totals in eight years.
The Wyverns' failure to make the postseason represented an end of an era. They had reached the past six consecutive Korean Series, a league record, and won three titles in the stretch. This year, however, they finished with a 62-63-3 record in sixth place, held back by injuries to key players and the failure by younger players to step up and take the torch from ineffective veterans.
The Lotte Giants, long the KBO's most popular team, lost nearly 600,000 fans from a year ago and also lost a bunch of more games. A playoff team in each of the past five seasons, the Giants ended in fifth at 66-58-4, 4.5 games out of the postseason.
The Busan-based team had been the KBO leader in attendance in each of the past five seasons, drawing at least 1 million fans in every one of them, but they fell to fourth with 770,681 fans at Sajik Stadium.
The Hanwha Eagles finished in the league cellar for the fourth time in the past five seasons. Since the Dinos' entry gave the KBO nine teams for the first time, the Eagles also earned the dubious distinction as the league's first ninth place club.
The Eagles lost their No. 1 starter Ryu Hyun-jin to the Los Angeles Dodgers via posting. Even the star left-hander wouldn't have turned around the fate of the club that scored the fewest runs and gave up the most runs in the KBO.
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