By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Oct. 23 (Yonhap) -- The top two clubs from the regular season will clash for the 2017 South Korean baseball championship starting this week.
The Kia Tigers and the Doosan Bears will duke it out in the best-of-seven Korean Series, the championship final in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). It opens Wednesday at the Tigers' home, Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul.
The Tigers have the home field advantage after finishing with the best record in the regular season at 87-56-1 (wins-losses-ties), and they had the bye to the Korean Series. They haven't played since the end of the regular season Oct. 3.
The Bears, who ended two games back in second place, advanced directly to the second round, where they eliminated the NC Dinos in four games.
The Tigers have won a league-high 10 championships, and they are 10-for-10 in Korean Series all-time. The Bears are the two-time defending champions and are trying to become only the third team to pull off a "three-peat."
The first two games of the Korean Series will be played in Gwangju. The Bears will host Games 3 and 4, and also Game 5, if necessary, at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul. If the final two games of the series are needed, the teams will return to Gwangju.
The Tigers and the Bears are among the original clubs that have been in the league since its inception in 1982, but they've never faced each other in the Korean Series.
Their last playoff meeting came in 1987, when the Tigers beat the Bears in five games in the second round en route to their second straight title.
It came in the midst of their run of four consecutive championships. Their last title came in 2009.
The Tigers moved into first place on April 12 and stayed there through the end of the regular season. But the Bears, powered by a terrific second-half surge, pulled into a tie at the top on Sept. 24, before the Tigers clinched the pennant by two games.
The Bears won the season series at 8-7-1.
These two teams are as evenly matched on paper as they come. They ranked first and second in team batting average (.302 to .294 in the Tigers' favor) and they were also the top two in runs scored, with the Tigers having scored 57 more runs at 906.
The Bears hit eight more home runs with 178, which put them in second place.
With the Tigers coming off a three-week layoff, their bats may take a while to get heated up. Rust will be of zero concern for the Bears, an offensive juggernaut who put on a spectacular display of power in their second round victory over the Dinos.
In those four games, the Bears belted out 12 home runs and scored 50 runs. Oh Jae-il, the series MVP, set KBO postseason records with four home runs and nine RBIs in the clinching Game 4. He batted .600 (9-for-15) with five dingers and 12 RBIs overall.
Cleanup Kim Jae-hwan was overshadowed by his slugging teammate, despite hitting .471 (8-for-17) with three home runs and nine runs driven in.
The two also put up good numbers against the Tigers in the regular season. Oh batted .306 (15-for-49) with three home runs, 14 RBIs and 10 runs scored in 14 games against the Tigers. Kim had a .305 batting average against them in 16 games, with eight RBIs, seven runs scored and 11 walks.
They didn't do as well on the road, as Kim hit .281 and Oh batted .258 in eight games at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field. Oh hit one home run in Gwangju, but Kim failed to leave yard there.
The Tigers may offer more resistance against the Bears than the Dinos' pitching staff, as they boast a pair of 20-game winners, right-hander Hector Noesi and left-hander Yang Hyeon-jong.
During the regular season, the Bears got to Yang fairly hard, with 19 hits and nine runs -- one unearned -- in 11 2/3 innings across two starts for a 6.17 ERA, Yang's highest against any opponent. He was 1-1 in those two games.
Noesi went 3-1 against the Bears but had a 4.06 ERA in five starts.
The Tigers bolstered a shaky bullpen by acquiring Kim Se-hyun, last year's saves leader, in a July trade.
The Bears are a rare club that can roll out four quality starters in a postseason series. Though they were hit hard in the previous round, the Bears will still stick with the rotation of Dustin Nippert, Chang Won-jun, Michael Bowden and Yoo Hee-kwan.
These four all won 15 games or more last season and carried the Bears to the Korean Series. In a four-game sweep of the Dinos in last year's final, these four held the opponents to one earned run in 29 1/3 innings.
They also started one game each in the previous round but none pitched well enough or long enough to earn a win. Only Nippert and Chang lasted more than five innings.
Nippert, the Game 1 starter, also struggled against the Tigers in the regular season. He was 1-3 with a 9.00 ERA -- his highest against any opponent -- in four starts.
On a brighter note, the Bears got an excellent series out of Ham Deok-ju, their No. 5 starter during the regular season who has been the key reliever in the postseason. The left-hander appeared in all four games of the series against the Dinos and tossed 6 2/3 scoreless innings, in which he gave up only two hits and struck out eight.
The Tigers' lineup is obviously no slouch. They have the batting champion in shortstop Kim Sun-bin, who batted .370, and perennial MVP candidate Choi Hyoung-woo, who ranked second in the KBO with 120 RBIs and topped in on-base percentage with .450.
Na Ji-wan and Roger Bernadina tied for the team lead with 27 home runs. Bernadina also had 32 steals along with a .320 batting average and 111 RBIs in his first KBO season.
In all, five Kia players hit 20 or more home runs, compared to four Doosan players.
Choi batted .309 in 16 regular season meetings against the Bears, along with two home runs and 11 RBIs. Bernadina, on the other hand, struggled to a .211 batting average against them -- his lowest batting average versus any opponent this year -- but he did have two homers and 11 RBIs in 15 games.
Na batted .298 against Doosan pitching but didn't hit a home run. The Bears were the only club to hold Na without a long ball this year.
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