(ATTN: ADDS photo; UPDATES with MVP winner in paras 21-22)
By Yoo Jee-ho
DAEGU, Nov. 1 (Yonhap) -- When his Houston Rockets won their second straight NBA championship in 1995, head coach Rudy Tomjanovich proclaimed, "Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion."
A little more than 18 years later, the Samsung Lions, who clinched their third straight Korean Series championship on Friday, made an emphatic statement to anyone who ever doubted their heart.
The Lions defeated the Doosan Bears 7-3 in Game 7 of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) championship final, and made plenty of history in the process.
They are the first team to capture the Korean Series after trailing three games to one. They are also the first to win the pennant and the Korean Series in three straight years.
They lacked their usual bite early in the series, but over the final three games, the Lions demonstrated the qualities that made them the champions the past two years -- timely hitting and shutdown relief pitching.
The Lions scored only seven runs in the first four games of the series. With their backs against the wall down three games to one and all but given up for dead, their bats finally came to life over the final three games.
They had 11 hits, including two home runs, in the 7-2 win in Game 5. In Game 6, they beat the Bears 6-2 despite getting outhit 9-8. Two of those eight hits were key home runs: Chae Tae-in's go-ahead two-run blast in the sixth and Park Han-yi's devastating three-run shot in the seventh.
Then in the decisive Game 7, the Lions came back from a 2-1 deficit with a five-run sixth inning. A throwing error by Doosan third baseman Lee Won-seok with the bases loaded put two runs across the plate, and the Lions put the game out of reach with a two-run single and an RBI double later in the inning.
They had their series-high 12 hits on Friday, exploding just when they needed to.
The Lions sent nine pitchers to the mound in Game 6, tying the record for most pitchers used in a postseason game. Starter Rick van den Hurk gave up a home run and issued two walks in the first inning, and had to leave the game with pains in his right biceps. Bae Young-soo and Cha Woo-chan, immediately following van den Hurk, had their ups and downs, but the six pitchers that came after them held the Bears to just three hits in the final 4 1/3 innings with five strikeouts.
Closer Oh Seung-hwan, a free-agent-to-be this winter, is eligible to be posted for any interested Major League Baseball (MLB) club, if the Lions grant him his wish to test the international market. Should the Lions agree to post him, Oh certainly helped himself a great deal with another strong Korean Series.
He recorded three saves in the Korean Series and now has the all-time postseason record of 13 saves. He did take the loss in Game 2, after giving up a 13th-inning home run to Oh Jae-il. In that game, the right-hander threw his season-high 53 pitchers over four innings.
Then after one day off, Oh got back on the mound in Game 3 to save the Lions' 3-2 victory. He never lost the bite of his fastball, as he struck out two of the three batters he faced in the perfect ninth inning.
Oh also had a save in the team's 7-5 win in Game 5 on Tuesday, recording two strikeouts in the ninth inning.
Then in Game 6, Oh took to the mound with two outs in the ninth and two men on board for the Bears, and retired the only batter he faced for this third save of the series.
Oh made his final appearance of the Korean Series, and perhaps in the Lions' uniform, in a non-save situation in Game 7. In his typical, overpowering manner, Oh retired the side to close out the game.
Prior to this year, Oh, the Korean Series MVP in 2005 and 2011, had pitched in 17 Korean Series games, with a 1-0 record and eight saves. In 26 Korean Series innings, he'd given up only two earned runs for an ERA of 0.69, along with 28 strikeouts.
By the time Oh completed yet another dominant Korean Series, Oh Jae-il's home run in Game 2 had become a distant memory.
The Bears put up a valiant fight as the heavy underdogs to start the series. They played 16 playoff games, a record for the most in a single postseason. They lost several key players to injuries along the way and never recovered in time to win their first title since 2001.
Though their right-handed relievers did yeoman's work, the lack of a left-handed pitcher in the bullpen may have ultimately been the difference in the series. In the last three losses, the Bears had no answer against the left-handed power bats of the Lions, such as the Korean Series MVP Park Han-yi and Chae Tae-in
The two finished first and second in the Korean Series MVP voting, with Park earning 40 out of 73 votes and Chae collecting 14. Park was 1-for-10 in the first four games of the series, before coming through with some key hits in the Lions' final three wins.
It was Park's two-run single in the eighth inning of Game 5 that brought the series back to the Lions' home in Daegu. And over the final two games at home, Park went 5-for-9 with three RBIs and five runs scored. Chae also helped out, going 5-for-8 with 2 RBIs.
During the Lions' pre-game practice on Friday, held about four hours before the start of the game, Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" was played over the PA speaker on loop for nearly an hour. In recent years, the song, originally released as a single in 1969, has been played at every home game at Fenway Park for the Boston Red Sox in the middle of the eighth inning.
The Red Sox won the 2013 World Series over the St. Louis Cardinals earlier this week, clinching the title at Fenway in Game 6. According to Samsung players, designated hitter Lee Seung-yeop showed the team a video clip of fans at Fenway singing along to "Sweet Caroline," and first baseman Chae Tae-in asked team officials to play the song.
Chae was signed by the Boston Red Sox out of high school as a pitcher in 2001. He suffered a shoulder injury and never actually played for their organization, but he is the one Samsung player with the closest connection to the Red Sox.
Humming along to the song, Chae told reporters that he wanted the Lions to get the "winning spirit" from the Red Sox.
The strategy might have worked, but it's not as though the Lions needed to listen to an old crooner to get going.
The team already had the heart of a champion.
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