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(LEAD) NC Dinos slugger Eric Thames shooting for MVP in second KBO season

All Headlines 15:14 March 18, 2015

(ATTN: UPDATES with Wednesday's results in para 13)
By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, March 18 (Yonhap) -- In his first Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) season for the NC Dinos in 2014, former major leaguer Eric Thames had a dominant, MVP-type season.

He batted .343 to lead all foreign players and rank eighth overall in the league, while hitting 37 homers (third in the league) and driving in 121 runs (second) to help the Dinos reach the postseason in just their second year of existence.

Despite these high numbers, Thames didn't win the MVP honors. In fact, since the KBO teams were first allowed to sign foreign players in 1998, only two foreign players -- OB Bears first baseman Tyrone Woods in 1998 and Doosan Bears starting pitcher Daniel Rios in 2007 -- have been voted the MVPs.

Thames, 28, said Wednesday he's determined to become the third in 2015.

"(Winning the MVP) is my goal every year," he said ahead of the Dinos' preseason game against the Bears at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul. "It's the highest goal you can have and so you might as well shoot for that."

In 2014, an offense-happy season of historic proportions, the MVP went to the batting champion Seo Geon-chang, the Nexen Heroes second baseman who batted .370 and also set a league record with 201 hits. Seo's Nexen teammate, Park Byung-ho, belted 52 homers to lead the league, and topped Thames by three RBIs to also finish first in that category.

Park, the MVP in 2012 and 2013, is enjoying a strong preseason, with the KBO-leading three homers and 11 RBIs through Tuesday's games. He has led the KBO in homers for the past three seasons, and if Thames were to figure into the MVP conversation this year, he will likely have to contend with Park.

Thames said he will stay focused on his own game.

"My mindset is the same (as last year). The pitchers will pitch me differently, and the league knows who I am, but that's no problem," he said. "I can't control much except how I play the game and to be smart. Hopefully, luck will be on my side this year."

Thames, who bats left and throws right, mostly played outfield in his big league and minor league days but was the Dinos primary first baseman last year. He said he'd like to improve his defense this year and appeared to be in midseason form on the field, making smooth backhand grabs on hard grounders in his warmup.

"I never want to just be stagnant. Last year is in the past," he said. "Now I have to keep getting better and help the team win."

The Dinos enjoyed a strong regular season but bowed out in the first round of the postseason against the LG Twins, a more veteran club. Thames said he hoped to help the Dinos get further into the playoffs and "hopefully win the championship, ultimately."

Heading into Wednesday, Thames was batting 4-for-15 in six preseason games but with no homers and just three RBIs. He then went 0-for-3 on Wednesday. The game was rained out after five innings with the score tied at 5-5. He had his first multihit game Tuesday versus the Bears, going 2-for-4 with three RBIs.

The regular season starts March 28, and Thames said he and the rest of the Dinos are "heating up" as the preseason nears its end.

"On offense, our guys are striding a little late and the bat speed is a little slow," Thames admitted. "We're still getting into the groove of things. But we're going to keep heating up and use it as the springboard right into the season."

The KBO will expand for the second time in three seasons, with the addition of the KT Wiz as the 10th club. As a result, the teams will play more games this year, up from 128 in 2014 to 144. In a nine-team setting, clubs took turns in taking three to four days off each week, with four games scheduled daily. Starting this year, all 10 teams will be in action from Tuesday to Sunday.

Thames said he is looking forward to playing on a more consistent basis.

"It will be nice to be playing five, six days a week. It will be nice for the guys to keep that rhythm of playing baseball," he said. "More games will mean more opportunities to win and more at-bats. I think it's a great thing."

Thames last year became a club house favorite with his trademark beard. After each homer by Thames, Kim Tae-gun, the Dinos catcher, began pulling his American teammate's beard, and it emerged as one of the KBO's most popular home run celebrations.

"I am going to keep (the beard) going all year," Thames said with a smile. "It's going to be messy."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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