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Familiar face on top, hard-hitting clubs in hot pursuit in year of offense in S. Korean baseball

All Headlines 10:05 October 17, 2014

SEOUL, Oct. 17 (Yonhap) -- The 2014 Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) regular season is scheduled to wrap up Friday night, with a familiar face back on top, two hard-hitting clubs hoping for postseason glory and the final playoff berth still undetermined.

The Samsung Lions have clinched their fourth consecutive pennant in the top domestic baseball league at 78-47-3, and will earn the bye straight to the championship Korean Series. They've won the past three Korean Series and will look to become only the second club in the league history to win four in a row.

Over the offseason, the Lions lost their vaunted closer Oh Seung-hwan, who signed with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan, but took care of business with potent offense.

The Lions produced three hitters with at least 30 home runs, and ended the year with the team batting an average of .301. Their power production conveniently masked some problems on the back end of the bullpen. Right-hander Lim Chang-yong, one-time Lions closer and former Chicago Cubs reliever, ranked among the league leaders with 31 saves but blew a KBO-worst nine saves, which contributed to his unsightly 5.84 ERA in just 44 2/3 innings.

The Nexen Heroes, a team stacked with offensive stars, will try to foil the Lions' bid for history. As the second-best regular season team, they're in the postseason for the second straight year and have earned the bye to the second round of the playoffs.

First baseman Park Byung-ho, the two-time reigning MVP, could well win his third straight MVP award this year after launching 52 homers with one game remaining this year. He also leads the KBO with 124 RBIs.

Park wasn't the only offensive hero for the club. Kang Jung-ho established new league records for most home runs and RBIs by a shortstop in one season with 39 and 115, and he has the league's best slugging percentage at .733.

Leadoff man Seo Geon-chang has also made history. He owns the single-season record for hits with 199 and for runs scored with 134.

On the mound, their left-handed starter Andy Van Hekken quietly enjoyed a 20-win season, becoming just the sixth pitcher to post at least 20 wins in starts.

The expansion NC Dinos will compete in their first playoffs in just their second season of existence. As with the two top clubs, the Dinos were also powered by high-octane offense featuring former Toronto Blue Jay Eric Thames, who has 37 homers and 121 RBIs, and Na Sung-bum, a sophomore outfielder who's set career highs with 30 homers and 100 RBIs.

The Dinos also had a shining moment on the mound in June, when starter Charlie Shirek tossed the franchise's first-ever no-hitter.

As the third seed, the Dinos will take on the fourth-ranked team from the regular season in the opening playoff round, but as the final day of the season began, their opponent hasn't been determined.

The LG Twins in fourth and the SK Wyverns in fifth are separated by one game heading into their season finale Friday evening. The Twins can clinch their second consecutive playoff berth with a win over the Lotte Giants on Friday. Should both the Twins and the Wyverns lose, then the Twins will also advance.

The Wyverns, which will face the Heroes, must win their game and hope the Twins lose. In that case, the two will end up with an identical 62-64-2 record. The Wyverns will have the tiebreaker edge thanks to a superior head-to-head record this season.

The Wyverns, who last won the Korean Series in 2010, are seeking their first playoff berth in two years.

Should the Twins advance to the playoffs, it will cap off a remarkable turnaround after a disastrous start.

The Twins started out 4-13-1 and cost manager Kim Ki-tai his job. Bench coach Cho Kye-hyun served in the interim manager role for 16 games before their former pitching coach Yang Sang-moon left TV booth to take over as the full-time manager.

They were 10-23-1 when Yang was appointed, and have gone 52-40-1 on Yang's watch.

Four clubs, including the 2013 runners-up Doosan Bears, have been left on the outside looking in. Under new manager Song Il-soo, the Bears began the year strong -- they were in third place in mid-June -- before fading away badly.

The Lotte Giants will miss the playoffs for the second straight year and manager Kim Si-jin is expected to resign after two years.

The Kia Tigers and the Hanwha Eagles are back as the two worst teams for the second straight season. The Tigers, a proud franchise with the league-high 10 championships, will be out of the playoffs for the third straight year. For the lowly Eagles -- who made a run to get out of the cellar last month -- it will be the third consecutive season at the bottom of the competition.

With plenty of runs being scored and balls leaving yard, fans flocked to pack stadiums across the nation. The KBO surpassed 6 million in attendance for the fourth straight year.

Through Thursday's games, the nine teams have collectively drawn 6.46 million fans, up from 6.44 million a year ago.

The Twins and the Bears, the two Seoul-based teams who share the cavernous Jamsil Stadium as their home, led the way with 1.16 million and 1.11 million fans, respectively. The Tigers, despite their struggles on the field, saw their home attendance rise by about 180,000 to just under 655,000 in their first season in the brand new ballpark, Gwangju Kia Champions Field.

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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