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Depleted Lions find ways to win fourth straight S. Korean baseball title

All Headlines 22:54 November 11, 2014

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Nov. 11 (Yonhap) -- The Samsung Lions, crowned the South Korean pro baseball champs for the fourth consecutive year, proved once and for all that they can win ball games in many different ways.

The Lions defeated the Nexen Heroes 11-1 to take the best-of-seven Korean Series in six games at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul. More so than in the previous three seasons, the Lions had to fight hard for each victory.

In the end, it was their never-say-die attitude that got the aging corps over the hill, possibly for one last time.

In a sign of their resilience, the Lions scored at least one run in the ninth inning in four straight games, from Games 2 to 5, including in a loss in Game 4.

In Game 3, Park Han-yi belted a go-ahead, two-run home run in the top of the ninth for the 3-1 win. Then in Game 5, Choi Hyoung-woo lined a two-run, walk-off double with two outs in the bottom of the ninth for the 2-1 victory.

That dramatic win essentially sealed the Heroes' fate. The Lions, riding high from the improbable comeback, scored four runs in the third, and added three each in the sixth and seventh for a breezy victory in the clincher.

The Heroes' players talked tough before the game, saying they'd already forgotten about the defeat on Monday, but they appeared as though they'd never had time to regroup. They looked completely baffled by Samsung starter Yun Sung-hwan, who sat down the first nine batters in order and allowed just four base runners in six innings.

The Lions began the season without closer Oh Seung-hwan, who signed with Japan's Hanshin Tigers, and their leadoff man Bae Young-seob, who began his mandatory military service last December.

Despite missing these key pieces, the Lions took over first place on May 16 and never relinquished the position the rest of the way, finishing with the best regular season record at 78-47-3 and clinching the bye to the Korean Series.

They had two weeks off, while the Heroes battled and knocked out the LG Twins in four games in the second round.

With experts giving the Heroes a slight edge in the Korean Series, given their firewagon offense, Lions' captain Choi Hyoung-woo predicted that his team's postseason experience would be the difference maker.

"I know a lot of experts picked Nexen to win and said we're going to be in trouble," Choi said. "But we actually thrive on (the underdog tag). In a postseason series, both teams will run into problems and I think we will be the one to overcome them because we're the more experienced team."

Choi proved quite prescient, as young Nexen pitchers were taken to school by Samsung veterans in key situations time and again.

The Heroes were in their first-ever Korean Series and only two players on their Korean Series roster, outfielder Lee Taek-keun and pitcher Oh Jae-young, have played in the championship final in the past.

The Lions were playing in their fifth consecutive Korean Series. For Park Han-yi, a Samsung lifer since 2001, this was his ninth Korean Series and seventh championship.

To say players are experienced is perhaps another way of saying that they're old. The window for the current group of the Lions to contend may be closing, since their core veterans -- outfielders Park Han-yi and Choi Hyoung-woo, infielder Chae Tae-in, and designated hitter Lee Seung-yeop -- are well into their 30s. Catcher Jin Kab-yong is still swinging a solid bat and working the pitchers like few others at age 40, though the wear and tear of playing the toughest position in baseball will get to him eventually.

Their pitching corps features 30-something hurlers such as Jang Won-sam and Yun Sung-hwan (the winning pitcher in Games 2 and 6), and their closer, Lim Chang-yong, is all of 38.

On the other hand, the Lions have maintained a strong farm system and have produced good homegrown talent recently, such as the 21-year-old reliever Sim Chang-min and the 24-year-old outfielder Park Hae-min.

The Heroes, with a decidedly younger core, may well be back in the Korean Series next year, but it wouldn't be a surprise if they had to contend with the Lions again, who may be older next year but also wiser at the same time.

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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