By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Nov. 4 (Yonhap) -- Let's say you're on a baseball club entering your very first postseason, and you want to talk to your teammates about how you can all best prepare for the experience.
But can you discuss postseason baseball without, well, mentioning the word "postseason"?
KT Wiz outfielder Mel Rojas Jr. is giving it a try.
"When you bring up the word 'postseason,' you're like, 'Oh, we have to do this, and we have to do that because it's the postseason.' That's when everybody starts to feel pressure, especially young guys," Rojas Jr. told Yonhap News Agency in a phone interview Tuesday.
The Wiz finished in second place during the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) regular season to qualify for their first playoffs. They've advanced directly to the penultimate round, and their best-of-five series starts next Monday, against the winner of the first round between the Doosan Bears and the LG Twins. If the Wiz can get past either of those two teams, they'll be off to the best-of-seven Korean Series against the top seed NC Dinos.
"You just have to make things simple, and during the game, take it back to the basics and not try to overdo stuff or do more than what you can do," he continued. "Let's just play the game and have fun. Obviously, we want good results. But I also want to have fun and enjoy our first postseason."
In their sixth season in the KBO, the Wiz set a franchise record with 81 victories. And Rojas Jr., a leading MVP candidate with gaudy numbers across the board, feels confident the Wiz can carry their winning ways into the postseason.
"I know it's easier said than done, but the way I see it is we just have to win seven games out of 12," he said, referring to the best-of-five and then the best-of-seven series on the horizon. "(The postseason) is just a normal game."
Rojas Jr. doesn't have much trouble keeping a positive mindset, even ahead of the pressure cooker that is the postseason, because he is an optimist at heart. He even managed to find a positive takeaway from his late-season bout of illness that cost him a shot at reaching some key offensive milestones -- namely, 50 home runs, 200 hits and a Triple Crown as the league leader in home runs, RBIs and batting average.
Rojas Jr. had played all 136 games and was leading all batters with 46 home runs, 132 RBIs and a .353 average when he came down with a fever before a game on Oct. 20. He was tested for the novel coronavirus, and the result came back negative. Rojas Jr. ended up missing two games and got just three plate appearances combined in the first two games back in action.
He had built comfortable leads in home runs and RBIs, and won those categories with 47 and 135, respectively. He just had to maintain his lead in the batting race for the Triple Crown, accomplished only three times by two hitters in the KBO's 39-year history.
Instead, Rojas Jr. batted 4-for-17 in his final four games and finished third in batting average with .349. He also ended at 192 hits to rank second in that department. Choi Hyoung-woo of the Kia Tigers won the batting title at .354, after batting .400 in October and going 6-for-13 in his last four games.
But Rojas Jr. said getting sick when he did was a blessing in disguise.
"After I got sick for a week, the way I saw it, it was God saying, 'Hey, you need some rest for the playoffs,'" Rojas said. "I really wanted to get to 50 homers and 200 hits. And the Triple Crown would have been very special. I thought I had it for a second, but I knew it was going to be very difficult after I got sick because I really lost my timing. But I am very thankful because I feel so much better than before I got sick."
As for Choi nipping him at the finish line in the batting race, Rojas Jr. said he was "mad" that Choi won the batting title but quickly added: "I am happy for him that he had a really good month. It's always special and fun for us as hitters when you're hot like that."
Rojas Jr. said he only started focusing on his personal goals after the Wiz clinched a postseason berth. And once a postseason spot was secured, then the goal was to finish as high in the standings as possible. With the Dinos having earlier locked down the top seed, the Wiz accomplished that goal by taking second place.
Finishing in second place with a caveat this year, though. With late postseason games to be played in cold conditions in mid-November following a delayed start to the regular season during the pandemic, the KBO decided to stage the final two rounds of the postseason at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. The neutral venue will keep players and fans alike warm under the roof, but that also means the Wiz will not get to play before their home crowds in Suwon, 45 kilometers south of the capital.
However, the Wiz weren't going to finish third or fourth just so they could play a couple of postseason games at home while risking an early elimination.
"It sucks for fans that they won't get to experience our first playoff at home. But we've got to do what we've got to do," Rojas Jr. said. "Second place is a lot better than finishing third or fourth. It means we have a chance to make it further."
The Wiz will face either the Bears or the Twins next week, and Rojas Jr. said he's going to be ready for anybody.
During the regular season, he torched the Twins by batting .443 with nine home runs and 16 RBIs in 15 games. He slugged at an incredible .934 clip against them.
In 16 games against the Bears, Rojas batted .297 -- his second-lowest average against an opposing team this year -- while going deep six times. He had a .641 slugging percentage against the Bears.
Though his numbers against the Twins look far better, Rojas Jr. said he was hitting much better against the Bears than the Twins earlier in the year, before the Bears changed their approach against him.
"Doosan found a way of pitching around me, and I ended up swinging at balls and got myself out," he said. "LG kept challenging me. And I like to be challenged."
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