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(Yonhap Interview) Aggressive approach key to Nexen's early success: pitcher

All Headlines 18:35 April 14, 2016

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, April 14 (Yonhap) -- Early in the 2016 Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) season, the Nexen Heroes have taken the mantra of "pitching to contact" to a whole new level while defying statistical logic in the process.

Through Wednesday's games, the Heroes' pitchers have given up a league-worst 118 hits in 102 innings. Opposing hitters are making contact on 19.6 percent of Nexen's pitches, the highest rate in the KBO, and no club has given up a higher opponent batting average (.293) and on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) percentage (.823) than the Heroes.

Still, the Heroes have managed a 6-4-1 (win-loss-tie) record through those 11 games, good enough for second place. Their pitchers, starters and relievers alike are essentially daring their opponents to hit. And to hear their No. 1 starter Ryan Feierabend tell it, it's this kind of aggressive approach on the mound that has helped the Heroes exceed early expectations.

"Our pitchers are doing a phenomenal job of attacking the zone," Feierabend told Yonhap News Agency Thursday at the Heroes' home, Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, before the rubber match of the three-game series against the KT Wiz. "We're going to give up hits but we're trying not to walk guys."

Feierabend, a left-hander with a 1-1 record in three starts with a 3.50 ERA in 18 innings, has given up just two walks, but he isn't even the leader in that category on his own staff. Right-hander Park Ju-hyun has walked just one batter in 10 innings, while Shin Jae-young hasn't issued any free passes in 13 2/3 innings.

Feierabend, in his second KBO season, credited pitching coach Son Hyuk with instilling all pitchers with that aggressive mindset, which Feierabend defined as "attacking the zone and trying to get an out in the first three pitches."

And it's also helped the Heroes that their starters have gone relatively deep into games. Feierabend himself has pitched six innings in each of his first three starts this season, and the Heroes are the only club with five starters -- Feierabend, Park, Shin, Robert Coello and Yang Hoon -- who have pitched at least five innings in every start of 2016.

"As a starter, if I can go six or seven or eight innings, that means I am doing my job and keeping my team in the ball game, regardless of how many runs I give up," Feierabend said. "Just go as long as you can in the ball game, and let the cards land where they may. All of our starters have gone five-plus innings and hopefully it can continue."

Feierabend added that playing home games at Gocheok Sky Dome, more cavernous than the Heroes' previous home Mokdong Stadium in Seoul, also helps with the pitchers' mindsets. Mokdong had been one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the league, while Gocheok -- five homers in the past two games notwithstanding -- has a reputation as a place where fly balls go to die.

There are 133 games left this season for the Heroes, and it seems statistically impossible for them to sustain this level of play. Giving up more than 10 hits per nine innings will come back and bite any club. And the Heroes have lost so many pieces over the winter -- 50-homer slugger Park Byung-ho signed with the Minnesota Twins and former No. 1 starter Andy Van Hekken joined the Seibu Lions, among others -- and they don't appear to have the necessary depth to compete in a 144-game season.

For now, Feierabend says he and his teammates are enjoying the run while they can.

"Everyone's having a good time," he said. "A lot of young guys are hungry and they want to play at this level. A lot of teams not giving us credit this year is motivating us to show them we belong at the top of the standings. It doesn't matter who we're facing: we have to keep staying hungry while we're on the field and keep attacking them."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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