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KT Wiz storm out of gate in 2nd KBO season

All News 09:56 April 06, 2016

SEOUL, April 6 (Yonhap) -- Don't look now, but the KT Wiz, in just their second Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) season, are at the top of the standings.

Granted, they've only played four games through Tuesday, and there are 140 games left in 2016. Still, winning three out of the first four games represents a major step forward for the expansion club that started the 2015 season 0-11. Last year, they didn't get to win No. 3 until their 19th game.

The Wiz defeated the Samsung Lions 8-3 in their home opener Tuesday at Suwon KT Wiz Park in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province. Last season, the Wiz won only three out of 16 against the Lions, losing seven in a row against them in one stretch.

On Tuesday, the Wiz proved they'll be a much different team in 2016. They knocked around the Lions' starter Collin Balester for five runs in 2 2/3 innings on five hits and six walks. Ha Jun-ho, batting leadoff, went 3-for-5 with two RBIs and a run scored. Yoo Han-joon, a Suwon native who signed as a free agent last winter, hit his first home run as a Wiz, a solo shot in the sixth.

The Wiz had 11 hits despite missing two injured veterans, Andy Marte and Kim Sang-hyun.

On the mound, starter Travis Banwart ran the pitch count high early, but was otherwise solid in holding the Lions to an unearned run on five hits and two walks over five innings.

Manager Cho Bum-hyun praised his players for staying focused in the absence of the two key hitters.

"Travis Banwart more than did his part as the starting pitcher," Cho said. "Our hitters got to the opposing starter (Balester) early and often. They came through in key situations."

Yoo said the Wiz have "a lot of talented players" and a little dose of confidence could go a long way for the young club.

"I think if we can add confidence to our tremendous potential, we could become a really good team," said Yoo, who hit a career-high 23 homers last year for the Nexen Heroes. "It is early in the season, but I feel like the more we win, the stronger we're becoming."

While Yoo was brought in to provide some pop in the heart of the order, Ha, a converted pitcher, has been supplying some sparks from the top of the lineup.

He is batting 7-for-14 in four games with three RBIs and a steal this season, and in Tuesday's game, Ha did the damage in many different ways.

He led off the bottom of the first with a single up the middle, kicking off what would be a three-run inning for the Wiz. Ha moved to third on two straight walks by Balester and came home for the game's first run on Yoo's sacrifice fly.

Then in the second, with one out and nobody one, Ha laid down a bunt toward the second baseman for a single. Balester made a diving grab but couldn't make the throw.

Ha then stepped up with two outs in the third with the Wiz up 3-1 and men at first and second. He launched a towering double to left center to drive in both runners and chase Balester from the game.

Ha joined the Wiz May 2 last year in a nine-player deal with the Lotte Giants. The Wiz were just 3-24 at that time, and Ha recalled that so much losing had taken a toll on the clubhouse.

Winning has changed everything, Ha said, as the Wiz have already matched the win total from the day Ha was traded to the club last year.

"The atmosphere is completely different this year," he said. "Veterans are reaching out to younger guys and giving us tips. We're all dreaming of reaching the postseason."

The 2014 NC Dinos are the only KBO club ever to reach the postseason in their second year of existence.

Ha was drafted by the Giants in 2008 as a left-handed pitcher. The hard-thrower made 25 appearances in 2009 and 2010, going 0-2 with a 10.57 ERA in 15 1/3 innings.

He had Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left elbow in April 2011, and left the mound for the outfield two years later.

Last year, he played a career-high 80 games and batted .258 with six homers, 26 RBIs and 10 steals. He could shatter those marks this season if he keeps playing as regularly as he has so far.

"I thought long and hard (about the switch)," he said. "But once I made up my mind, I've never looked back."


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