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Reigning baseball MVP out to prove banner season wasn't fluke

All Headlines 08:51 March 09, 2018

By Yoo Jee-ho

INCHEON, March 9 (Yonhap) -- After winning South Korean baseball's MVP award last year, Kia Tigers left-hander Yang Hyeon-jong wants to prove this year that his 2017 season wasn't a fluke.

The 30-year-old left-hander was voted the MVP of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) last season, thanks to a 20-6 record and a 3.44 ERA. He tied his teammate Hector Noesi for the league lead in wins and ranked fifth in ERA. He was second in innings pitched (193 1/3) and third in strikeouts (158). Yang also helped his Tigers win their first Korean Series title in eight years, recording a complete game shutout win in Game 2 and a save in the clinching Game 5 over the Doosan Bears, en route to earning the series MVP honors. He is the only player in the KBO's 36-year history to win both the regular season and Korean Series MVP awards in the same season.

In this file photo taken Jan. 31, 2018, Kia Tigers pitcher Yang Hyeon-jong speaks to reporters at Incheon International Airport before departing for the club's spring training site in Okinawa, Japan. (Yonhap)

Upon returning from the team's spring training in Okinawa, Japan, on Thursday, Yang admitted he might have been fortunate in getting to the 20-win plateau for the first time in his career. And his goal for the upcoming season is to rely less on luck and more on his skills and talent.

"Even though I won 20 games last year, I still needed to do little things better," Yang told reporters at Incheon International Airport. "This year, I will try to lower my ERA and throw more innings. And more importantly, I want to be able to help the team and win games when we're going through a rough patch."

Yang had a whirlwind offseason, attending various awards ceremonies and other functions, as MVPs usually do. He said he was a bit worried that he could be behind schedule as far as getting ready for a new season, and he pushed himself extra hard during spring training, which went on for a little over a month.

"I am pleased that I was able to finish the camp without any injury or pain," Yang said. "I didn't train as much as I would have liked during the winter. So I needed to whip myself into shape."

Yang pointed out that getting off to a quick start will be especially crucial in 2018. The Asian Games are set for Aug. 18-Sept. 2 in Jakarta and Palembang in Indonesia, and South Korea, as the defending champion in baseball, will send a team of KBO All-Stars, which will likely include Yang. The KBO will go on a hiatus from Aug. 16 to Sept. 3, and it has forced the league to schedule its Opening Day on March 24, the earliest start to any season in the KBO history.

"With the Asian Games on this year, I think we should have a strong start in order to stay in contention for the whole season," he said. "I put in all that work in spring training because I wanted to be ready to contribute right away from the beginning."

In this file photo taken Oct. 30, 2017, Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers celebrates his team's 7-6 win over the Doosan Bears in Game 5 of the Korean Series at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul. Yang picked up the save with a scoreless ninth inning in the Tigers' title-clinching victory. (Yonhap)

Yang will face some extra challenges in 2018 in the form of former All-Stars returning from their brief stints in Major League Baseball (MLB).

Last year, Yang didn't have to face two-time MVP Park Byung-ho, power-hitting third baseman Hwang Jae-gyun and former batting champion Kim Hyun-soo, who's been dubbed "Hitting Machine" for his contact abilities. But they've all returned to the KBO, having had little success in the big leagues, and they will all look to find the groove again on home soil.

Yang said he won't pay any more attention to those hitters than he does to anyone else.

"I'll just look at those guys as one of nine hitters I have to face in the opposing lineup," he said. "I don't want to be too conscious of them, and I think they'll have the same approach when they face me."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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