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Once S. Korean baseball doormat, Nexen Heroes make memorable run at championship

All Headlines 09:02 November 12, 2014

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Nov. 12 (Yonhap) -- In December 2009, Lee Jang-seok, president of the Nexen Heroes, said in a media interview that he was building his Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) club in a way that they could win a championship by 2014.

The prediction drew snickers around the league. After all, Lee was running a team so cash-strapped that it was trading players for cash.

The Heroes, which joined the KBO in 2008, were coming off a season in which they placed sixth among eight teams. In 2010, they fell to seventh. The next year, they hit rock bottom, finishing with the KBO-worst 51-80-2 record.

Then in one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the league's 32-year history, the Heroes became contenders and came within two victories of actually making Lee Jang-seok look like a clairvoyant.

In 2013, only two years after posting the league's worst record, the Heroes finished third in the regular season and made the postseason for the first time, led by late-blooming slugger Park Byung-ho and hard-hitting shortstop Kang Jung-ho. First-year manager Yeom Kyung-yeop quickly emerged as the KBO's brightest mind on the bench, a studious strategist who worked his way from a front office staffer to a base running coach to the managerial position.

The Heroes won the first two games against the Doosan Bears in the opening postseason round before losing the next three.

Hardened by the experience, the Heroes came back stronger. They finished second in the regular season in 2014, only half a game behind the Samsung Lions at 78-48-2. As the league's most dynamic club, Nexen produced four MVP candidates: batting champion Seo Geon-chang, who set a new KBO record with 201 hits; Park Byung-ho, the two-time reigning MVP with 52 homers; Kang Jung-ho, whose 40 homers were a new single season record by a shortstop; and Andy Van Hekken, the league's only 20-game winner.

In the postseason, the Heroes knocked out the LG Twins in four games in the second round and faced the Lions in the Korean Series.

Up against the three-time reigning champs, the Heroes didn't back down and took the first game on the road. The teams were locked at two games apiece, when the Heroes held a 1-0 lead, heading into the bottom of the ninth in Game 5 on Monday.

With their closer Son Seung-lak on the mound, the Heroes seemed on the verge of taking a 3-2 series lead. The Lions then put two men on base with an error and a single, and brought Choi Hyoung-woo to the plate.

At 2-2, Choi sent a screamer down the right-field line for the walk-off, two-run double to secure the Lions' 2-1 victory.

That victory appeared to have shifted the momentum in the Lions' favor for good. The Heroes played Game 6 as if they'd never recovered from that loss, going hitless in the first three innings against right-hander Yun Sung-hwan at the plate and committing three errors in the field. Their six pitchers handed out seven walks.

For all their offensive prowess in the regular season -- they were tops in runs scored and home runs -- their big bats went silent at the most inopportune time.

Park Byung-ho and Kang Jung-ho, their No. 4 and 5 hitters who hit 92 homers and drove in 241 runs together in the regular season, were 0-for-7 with two strikeouts in the series decider Tuesday. For the series, they were a dismal 4-for-41 with two homers and four RBIs.

They were far from the only culprits. Seo Geon-chang, who batted .370 in the regular season, was just 4-for-23 from the leadoff spot.

After the tough Game 5 loss, manager Yeom lamented his team's lack of big game experience. After all, only two players had previously competed in the Korean Series.

Their young hurlers out of the pen, namely Cho Sang-woo and Han Hyun-hee, frequently looked out of sorts on the mound and were unable to find the zone at crucial moments.

Their teammates on offense didn't fare much better, as the savvy Samsung pitchers kept baffling them with guile.

The Heroes could be shorthanded next year, as Kang seeks to bolt for Major League Baseball (MLB) this winter via posting. With or without Kang next year, manager Yeom, reduced to tears of disappointment after the game, vowed to come back stronger.

"Even though we lost the series, I think we will gain a great deal from this," the emotional manager said. "We're going to work even harder to become a better ball club next year and do something we weren't able to do this year."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
(END)

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