By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, March 13 (Yonhap) -- Brandon Knight has been in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) for a decade, first as a starting pitcher, then a scout and finally as a pitching coach.
Now 43, Knight has seen enough and done enough to know a good pitching staff when he sees one: This year, it is his very own.
With the 2019 season just around the corner, the Kiwoom Heroes are a trendy pick to contend for the Korean Series championship. They have a deep lineup with a blend of mashers and highly skilled contact hitters. Their rotation is fronted by a righty-lefty American duo, Jake Brigham and Eric Jokisch, with an up-and-coming homegrown product Choi Won-tae serving as a capable No. 3 starter. In the bullpen, the Heroes boast an all-purpose fireballer in An Woo-jin.
"Can we live up to those expectations? I don't see why not," Knight told Yonhap News Agency on Tuesday before the Heroes hosted the LG Twins in a preseason game at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. "These guys trust their ability, they trust their coaches, and they trust themselves. It could be a pretty special season."
In last year's postseason, the Heroes pushed the eventual Korean Series champs SK Wyverns to the brink in Game 5 of the penultimate round before coming up short in an insanely wild finish.
Down to their final out in the top of the ninth inning, the Heroes erased a 9-4 deficit in a hurry, with Park Byung-ho's two-run blast capping off the improbable inning and knotting the score at 9-9. The Heroes went ahead with a run in the top of the 10th, only to see the Wyverns launch back-to-back solo shots in the bottom of the 10th for the victory.
Knight watched helplessly from the dugout as his reliever Shin Jae-young served up those homers. He still feels that the Heroes, had they reached the Korean Series, would have defeated the Doosan Bears, the team awaiting the winner of the Heroes-Wyverns matchup.
"I didn't get the feel from our players (last year) that the moment is too big for them," Knight said. "The talent is there (this year). Now, it's a matter of putting it all together."
For a lot of KBO clubs, their success depends on performances of their foreign pitchers. Each team is allowed to carry a maximum two foreign hurlers, and save for a few exceptional cases, they've all been asked to lead their respective rotations.
Brigham was 11-7 with a 3.84 ERA last year, and he was fourth in the KBO with 175 strikeouts. Knight and the rest of the staff know what to expect from him.
Knight said he's been "encouraged" by what he'd seen from Jokisch, the newcomer with extensive Triple-A experience.
"There were a few things I saw earlier in the spring that I wasn't really a fan of. As time went on, I talked to him about a few things that he was doing mechanically. He seems to have figured those things out," Knight said. "Everything seems to be going as planned. He's got a good two-seam (fastball) and a good changeup. He's got a good feel for what he wants to do in a game. He has everything you need from a starting pitcher. I certainly expect him to do well this year."
Knight was also effusive about An, the 19-year-old sophomore right-hander who turned heads with an outstanding run in the postseason in 2018.
An was one of the top pitching prospects to come out of high school in the 2018 rookie class. But he didn't make his pro debut until May, because the Heroes suspended him for 50 games after belatedly learning that he'd assaulted younger teammates in high school.
An was held out of spring training and was roughed up in the regular season, to the tune of a 7.19 ERA in 20 appearances.
But in two rounds of the playoffs, An was the Heroes' best reliever, holding the opponents to two earned runs in 15 2/3 innings while striking out 18.
Knight said An has the ability to be "the best pitcher in this league easily."
"When you look at someone who's as talented as he is, it's a matter of, 'Can he stay focused?'" Knight said. "I certainly expect him to take the next step. We expect him to be one of our best pitchers. There's certain amount of trust he has with coaches. He's a sponge. He's taking it all in. The sky is certainly the limit for him."
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