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(Yonhap Interview) Baseball postseason all about 'fun' for veteran pitcher

All Headlines 13:46 October 31, 2016

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Oct. 31 (Yonhap) -- Doosan Bears' right-hander Dustin Nippert has seen it all and done it all in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) in his half-dozen years here.

The lanky former big league pitcher has won the Korean Series championship and has been a part of the pennant winning club. But he has also been on teams that struggled to finish above .500 and the 2013 team that saw their 3-1 Korean Series lead evaporate and lost in seven games.

And through these ups and downs, Nippert's key philosophy hasn't changed: try to win every game and have fun while doing it.

"Every time I pitch, I feel it's the same. I want to win every game," Nippert told Yonhap News Agency on Sunday at Jamsil Stadium, before his Bears beat the NC Dinos 5-1 to take a 2-0 Korean Series lead.

Nippert tossed eight shutout innings in Game 1, but got a no-decision as the Bears won the game 1-0 with a sacrifice fly in the bottom 11th.

"For me, if I put more importance on (a postseason) game, then I feel like I wouldn't be giving my all in the (regular) season," he added. "I want to try to go as deep into the game as I can and just have fun."

The 35-year-old certainly enjoyed himself in the regular season. He led the KBO with 22 victories and a 2.95 ERA -- a remarkable figure in the offense-happy competition where the league average ERA was 4.18. Nippert was a major reason why the Bears ran away with the pennant with 93 victories, a new KBO single-season record.

Dustin Nippert of the Doosan Bears celebrates the final out of the seventh inning against the NC Dinos in Game 1 of the Korean Series at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul on Oct. 29, 2016. (Yonhap)

And he has continued that dominance of opposing hitters into the postseason. Nippert was perfect through five innings and allowed just two hits in those eight innings against the Dinos.

The performance is rendered more remarkable given that Nippert hadn't pitched in a league game for nearly three weeks.

By winning the pennant, the Bears had the bye to the Korean Series, and their last regular season game was on Oct. 8, 21 days before Game 1 of the Korean Series.

"Nobody really plans to have three weeks off and go out and play in a big series like this," Nippert said. "It was a little bit difficult. But pitching in the game (Saturday) was fun. Everyone was playing good defense and we were putting the ball in play. I tried not to put too much pressure on myself, and to just enjoy my teammates."

Even the struggling offense of the Bears didn't affect Nippert's mood. The team put a runner on base in each of the first nine innings, but failed to bring any of them home.

Nippert bristled at the question on whether he was frustrated watching his teammates stranding one baserunner after another.

"Why would I be frustrated?" he said. "As long as I am doing my job, having fun and keeping us in the game, I am never frustrated."

Nippert was the leader of the league's deepest starting rotation, dubbed "Fantastic Four" by the Korean media. The Bears became the first KBO club ever to boast four 15-game winners in one season. Nippert was joined by Michael Bowden (18 wins), Chang Won-jun and Yoo Hee-kwan (15 wins each).

Nippert pointed out it wasn't just the rotation that took the Bears this far.

"Everyone feeds off one another. Pitchers pitch well and hitters hit well," he said. "Starters would go deep into the game and the bullpen would finish it off. I feel like our team game all around this year was really good."

The depth of the rotation will especially come in handy in the Korean Series against the Dinos, whose staff is very thin after the two Americans, Eric Hacker and Zach Stewart.

These two held the Bears to just three earned runs in 13 2/3 innings combined, but the Dinos lost both of their starts because the offense only scored once in 20 innings.

Now they have to turn to unproven starter Choi Keum-kang for Game 3 Tuesday, trying to hold onto rapidly fading title hopes.

For the Bears, starting pitching isn't really a concern. Chang followed Nippert's gem by coming within an out of a complete game victory in Game 2. Bowden, who no-hit the Dinos in June, is in line to start Game 3.

"It's important (to have a deep rotation) because it takes the pressure off the bullpen," Nippert said. "I felt like other teams just piece it together as they go. I am glad to be where we are right now."

Nippert added catcher Yang Eui-ji deserves much credit for helping him and the rest of the staff. Yang is considered the KBO's best two-way catcher, a strong game caller and a reliable defensive presence who can hit for power and average at the plate.

Nippert said the two "started clicking" after his first few months in the KBO, and their mutual trust runs so deep that Nippert rarely shakes off Yang.

"He never gets too excited and he never gets down. He's always even-tempered," Nippert said. "He's solid as a rock. He's easy going. He really does a great job with the staff."

And no matter who's behind the plate, Nippert said appreciating the opportunity to play on the big stage is always important.

"Go out and keep having fun," he said when asked what it would take to win the Bears' second straight title. "There's no need to put too much pressure on ourselves. But we have to know that each game is important and we can't take it too lightly."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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