By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, March 21 (Yonhap) -- It's hard enough to win consecutive titles in baseball. The challenge becomes even more difficult when you're a new manager taking over a championship team from a widely-respected predecessor.
That's the position Yeom Kyung-yup finds himself in, as he enters his first season as the skipper for the SK Wyverns in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO).
Yeom knows he has a tough act to follow, after American manager Trey Hillman guided the Wyverns to their first title in 10 years in just his second season. Hillman returned to the United States after the season to spend more time with his family, and Yeom, who had been the team's general manager, came down from the front office for his first gig helming the dugout in three years. He managed the Nexen (currently Kiwoom) Heroes from 2013 to 2016.
"I have inherited a great team, and I must admit I do feel some pressure," Yeom said at the annual KBO media day in Seoul on Thursday, held two days before the start of the season. "Hillman gave our fans such a great gift last year. And during spring training, our players have prepared really well for the new season, and they've given me plenty of confidence."
The Wyverns defeated the Doosan Bears in six games in the Korean Series, despite having finished 14.5 games back of the Bears in the regular season. Hillman was credited with bringing out the best in the underdog squad, and Yeom said his goal is to be even better this year.
"We had some problems with our defense and middle relief, and we've addressed those issues," Yeom said. "Our players all have a strong sense of purpose. Winning games will obviously be important, but we'll also play hard game in and game out for our fans."
This time a year ago, the Wyverns weren't regarded as a title favorite. The narrative has changed now, and managers of other clubs said they will try hard to topple the reigning champs -- none more so than the Bears' Kim Tae-hyung.
They won 93 out of 144 games in the regular season in 2018 but it went for naught in the Korean Series. It was also their second-straight runner-up finish.
"For the fifth straight year, our goal is to win the championship," said Kim, who did guide the Bears to back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016. "I feel that we just have to play the way we're capable of playing."
The Hanwha Eagles ended their 11-year postseason drought last year, finishing third in the regular season before bowing out of the first round of the playoffs against the Heroes.
The Eagles are trying to win while simultaneously ushering in a new generation of players. The rebuilding may come at the expense of a few wins but manager Han Yong-duk said, "We'll be out there to prove last year wasn't a fluke."
Han said, in particular, he will be counting on his new starting pitchers, Warwick Saupold and Chad Bell. They allowed just one run in 15 1/3 combined innings in the preseason, and Saupold got the Opening Day nod.
The Kia Tigers lost in the wild card game in 2018, a year after capturing their 11th Korean Series championship. Manager Kim Ki-tai said he was looking forward to a return to the promised land and said, "We'll be the last team standing at the end of the season."
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