By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Oct. 6 (Yonhap) -- With the addition of a new franchise and a new Wild Card berth, along with an expanded schedule, the 2015 Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) season should have been different than previous years.
One constant didn't change, however, as the Samsung Lions won a record fifth consecutive pennant, doing so in the league's first 144-game season.
They clinched the regular season crown in their penultimate game last Saturday and finished with a record of 88-56. They have earned yet another bye to the championship final, the Korean Series. They will be gunning for their fifth straight championship, which would also be a league record.
The NC Dinos, playing in just their third season, gave the Lions a run for their money. They went from seventh in their inaugural season to third last year and then second this year, going straight to the second round of the playoffs. The Dinos finished 2.5 games behind, at 84-57-3.
The battle for third place also came down to the wire. The Doosan Bears won their final game of the season Sunday to edge out the Nexen Heroes by half a game.
The Bears will be in the first round of the playoffs. They will meet the winner of the KBO's first-ever Wild Card Game between the Heroes and the fifth-place SK Wyverns.
The Heroes, who lost to the Lions in last year's Korean Series, will be the host at Mokdong Stadium on Wednesday. They will have a one-game advantage: the Heroes only need to win one game, but the Wyverns must beat the Heroes on back-to-back days to reach the next stage.
The most heated battle took place among clubs vying for that fifth spot, a chance to sneak into the postseason. The Wyverns, the Hanwha Eagles, the Kia Tigers and the Lotte Giants all had a shot over the final days of the season, and the Wyverns were the last club standing, after going 10-6 in their last 16 games to move up from eighth place.
The Eagles were the darlings of the KBO in the early going. The perennial doormat that finished at the bottom of the standings the past three years, the Eagles, under new manager Kim Sung-keun, entered the All-Star break at 44-40.
Yet Kim's oft-controversial use of his relief pitchers took its toll on the team, which relied heavily on a few bullpen arms to get through many games, and the Eagles stumbled to a 24-36 record in the second half. They have not been to the postseason since 2007.
The KT Wiz, the KBO's newest franchise, had a predictably slow start but enjoyed a surprising second-half surge. They lost their first 11 games of the season and were just 10-42 through May 31. They went 42-49-1 the rest of the way, including a 14-11 month of August. With 52 victories, they tied the 1991 Ssangbangwool Raiders and the 2013 Dinos for the most wins by a first-year club.
Duels among individual players were no less exciting than jostling for positions in the standings.
Eric Thames of the Dinos and Park Byung-ho of the Heroes dominated all major offensive categories with video-game, historic numbers, and will be the two strongest MVP candidates.
Thames won the batting title with a .381 average, nearly 20 points better than the next best hitter, Yoo Han-joon of the Heroes, and finished third in home runs (47) and second in RBIs (140).
Thames also had the KBO's highest on-base percentage (.497) and slugging percentage (.790), while scoring the most runs (130).
Thames also became the first KBO player to post a 40-40 season in home runs and steals, and to hit for the cycle twice in the same year.
Park's season was equally impressive. He hit a career-high 53 home runs, one more than last year's total, and became the first KBO player ever to hit at least 50 home runs in back-to-back seasons. Park also set a new single-season record with 146 RBIs. He's also the first to lead the KBO in home runs and RBIs in four consecutive seasons.
Thames will bid to become only the third foreign player to win the regular season MVP, after Tyrone Woods of the OB Bears in 1998 and Daniel Rios of the Doosan Bears in 2007. Park, who won the MVPs in 2012 and 2013, will try to be the third player with three MVP trophies.
With the hitters again putting up gaudy numbers, pitchers struggled to keep the ball in the park and runs off the board. Yet this year's starting pitching was top-heavy, as 10 pitchers managed to keep their ERA under 4.00, compared to just six who did so last season.
Tigers' left-hander Yang Hyeon-jong led the way with a 2.44 ERA in his first season after failing to reach Major League Baseball via posting. He went 15-6.
Eric Hacker of the Dinos had the most wins with 19, and finished second in ERA with 3.13.
Cha Woo-chan of the Lions recorded the most strikeouts with 194 in 173 innings. He came out of the bullpen in the final game of the regular season Monday and struck out three in 1 2/3 innings to edge out Andy Van Hekken of the Heroes by one.
Lions' closer Lim Chang-yong picked up the most saves with 33. The former Chicago Cubs reliever had 31 saves last year but had a 5.84 ERA in 44 2/3 innings, while leading the KBO with nine blown saves.
This year, the ageless wonder posted a 2.83 ERA with 71 strikeouts in 54 innings at age 39. He blew five saves and gave up just two homers all season.
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