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Nexen Heroes enter 1st season at new park with altered game plan

All Headlines 14:09 March 15, 2016

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, March 15 (Yonhap) -- The Nexen Heroes boasted the most potent offense in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) last year, as the league leader in both runs scored and home runs.

And as they move into a new, more cavernous stadium, sans some big mashers from recent seasons, the Heroes are approaching the 2016 season with an altered game plan: after launching 203 home runs and scoring 904 runs in 144 games last year, they will stop swinging for the fences and will start trying to manufacture runs.

The Seoul-based club will now call Gocheok Sky Dome its new home, after spending the previous eight seasons at Mokdong Stadium. They played their first preseason game at the dome Tuesday against the SK Wyverns. There will be nine more at the dome before the regular season opener on April 1.

At Mokdong, it was 98 meters down the left and right field lines, and 118 meters to center, with a 2-meter high outfield wall. At Gocheok Sky Dome, the country's first dome that opened last November, it's 99 meters to left field and right field, and 122 meters straightaway center. The outfield fence is 3.8 meters high.

It'd be difficult enough to play in the bigger ballpark with all the pieces in place, but in the past two offseasons, the Heroes have lost their 3-4-5 hitters from the lineup that reached the championship Korean Series in 2014.

First, it was shortstop Kang Jung-ho, fresh off his first 40-home run season in 2014, signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates via posting in January 2015. First baseman Park Byung-ho followed him to the majors last December, joining the Minnesota Twins after hitting 105 home runs in 2014 and 2015. Then outfielder Yoo Han-joon, who belted 20 homers in 2014 and 23 more in 2015, signed with another KBO club, KT Wiz, as a free agent last November.

Manager Yeom Kyung-yup said the Heroes will have to change themselves and adopt a new M.O.

"We have to try to hit the ball into the gaps and go for triples with aggressive baserunning," he said. "On the flipside, we have to prevent triples on defense."

Yeom said speedy sophomore Lim Byeong-wuk will be the everyday center fielder, and he will be asked to cover a lot of ground in both left-center and right-center.

"He is the fastest player we have who can play center field," Yeom said of the 20-year-old. "We'll be using a couple of other young guys in the position, and my goal is to develop all of them this year."

Another speedster, second baseman Seo Geon-chang, said coaches have instructed the players to run with more abandon.

"They've been telling us to be aggressive on the base paths and not worry too much about consequences because it's just preseason," said Seo, who stole 113 bases from 2012 to 2014 before injuries limited him to nine last year. "That way, we'll have a better feel come regular season."

Seo said another challenge of playing at the dome will be to track fly balls, which may be lost against the ceiling.

Members of the national team that faced Cuba in exhibition games last November had complained about the difficulty following fly balls. Seo said it will take some adjustments before he and his teammates will feel comfortable getting under fly balls.

Yeom said professional ball players should have no trouble catching balls in the air.

"I think they're saying fly balls are difficult because they haven't played here," he said. "People who get paid to play baseball should be able to make catches."

In the opposite dugout, SK manager Kim Yong-hee echoed Yeom's sentiment.

"It's something that players will have to get used to," Kim said. "Pop flies are a cause for concern, but if you're a pro ball player, you must adjust quickly."

SK infielder Lee Dae-soo, a 15-year veteran, said the key was to follow the ball right off the bat.

"The wind doesn't come into play here obviously, but you can lose the sight of the ball in flight here," Lee said. "We'll have to play here more to get a better idea."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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