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Fueled by teammates, veteran outfielder chases 1st 20-20 season

All Headlines 15:17 April 06, 2018

SEOUL, April 6 (Yonhap) -- Though he's not 30 yet himself, Nexen Heroes veteran Ko Jong-wook is already the oldest outfielder on his team.

And it's the performances of those younger teammates that have fueled Ko, who's 29 in his sixth Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) season.

Take the 19-year-old sophomore Lee Jung-hoo, for instance. The former high school shortstop won the Rookie of the Year in 2017 as an outfielder, while setting freshman records with 179 hits and 111 runs scored. He's off to a solid start this year too, with a .316 batting average in 10 games.

Im Byeong-wuk, 22, is swinging an even hotter bat, with a team-high .387 batting average. His career high is .249 from two years ago.

In this file photo from March 20, 2018, Ko Jong-wook of the Nexen Heroes (L) celebrates his solo home run against the LG Twins with his teammates in the bottom of the fourth inning during a Korea Baseball Organization preseason game at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. (Yonhap)

"When Jung-hoo joined the team and became a regular last year, it sent a jolt through our outfield," Ko said before the Heroes' regular season game against the KT Wiz at Gocheok Sky Dome on Thursday. "Right now, he's playing like a veteran and shows the savvy of someone who's been around for more than 10 years. Byeong-wuk has been playing well this year, and it has really driven me."

Ko has been no slouch himself at the plate. Through 11 games, Ko is batting .333/.395/.590 with three home runs, seven RBIs and three steals.

Those home run numbers stand out. Ko's career high is 10 in 119 games from the 2015 season. He had eight in each of the past two years, while playing 133 games in 2016 and 123 in 2017.

The quick start this year puts Ko on a pace to achieve his first 20-20 season. Only three players last year had at least 20 homers and 20 steals. And as teams have shifted away from manufacturing runs on the base path to just trying to hit home runs, only six players even stole 20 bags in 2017, down from 10 such players in 2016 and 16 in 2015.

"I don't even hit in the middle of the order, so I don't really pay attention to home run totals," Ko said. "But during spring training, I tried to start driving the ball better. I worked on improving my body rotation and the launch angle. I hit a lot of ground balls in preseason, and I am glad I've got three homers so far in the regular season."

Ko has indeed been a ground ball hitter. Last year, he was 12th in the league in the ground ball-to-fly ball ratio with 1.31. This year, Ko has hit 10 ground balls compared with six fly balls, a ratio that puts him in a tie for eighth. But Nexen coaches say Ko is making harder contact than in past seasons.

"I am not necessarily trying to reduce my ground ball rate," Ko said. "I want to hit more line drives and make hard contact on grounders so that they will get past infielders."

Ko is a good bet to steal at least 20 bags and take care of that end in his bid to join the 20-20 club. Ko has averaged 22 steals over the past three years -- 22 in 2015, 28 in 2016 and 16 last year.

In 2017, the Heroes as a team went in a different direction as far as steals. They had just 70 swipes last year to rank seventh, after leading the KBO with 154 in 2016.

For this season, the Heroes have given their speedsters the green light.

"I am confident about my running game," Ko said. "I'll try to steal more than last year. I'd love to get to 20-20. If I reach 10 home runs this season, then we can talk more about it."

Ko Jong-wook of the Nexen Heroes takes a swing against the KT Wiz in the bottom of the eighth inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on April 3, 2018. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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