By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Nov. 12 (Yonhap) -- Aaron Altherr and the rest of the NC Dinos have yet to play a meaningful game this month, but when they do return to action next week, it'll be for the start of the South Korean baseball championship series.
The Dinos finished first in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) regular season. As a reward, they've earned a bye to the Korean Series, which starts Tuesday. The Dinos' last regular season game came on Oct. 31.
In simple terms, the Dinos will go from playing scrimmages and taking batting practice to competing in the most important games of the season. The switch will have to be flicked with urgency.
Altherr, a slugger and a sleek center fielder, isn't all that worried about having any rust, though. Instead, he thinks the rest will prove beneficial.
"(I'm) not really used to having this kind of a break before, especially with important games, like the ones coming up. So it's strange, a little different," Altherr told Yonhap News Agency in a phone interview on Wednesday. "But at the same time, not having an All-Star break this year, it's kind of nice having this break and getting some much needed rest. And I think, in the end, it will help out and we will be a lot stronger and ready to go."
Altherr, among the KBO leaders with 31 home runs and 108 RBIs during the regular season, was speaking of a long regular season. The start was pushed back by over a month to early May due to the coronavirus pandemic. With the KBO aiming to play -- and ultimately completing -- the full 144-game schedule, there was no annual All-Star break in July this year.
On top of that, teams were forced to play doubleheaders and makeup games on Monday, usually the designated offday each week, to ensure the regular season would wrap up in October and the postseason would begin in November.
Clubs that ranked below the Dinos have been duking it out in the postseason and whoever reaches the Korean Series may be in better game shape. But Altherr said he and his teammates have done enough work to stay sharp, too.
"We've seen live pitching. We're staying in pretty good shape as far as timing goes," he said. "We're seeing a lot of arms and keeping our eyes in shape. I am not too worried about that part of it. I think everything's gonna be okay."
Though the Dinos have earned their first bye to the Korean Series in franchise history, they do have a veteran who's been there and done that. Third baseman Park Sok-min enjoyed direct trips from the regular season to the Korean Series in five straight years with the Samsung Lions, from 2011 to 2015. The Lions won the Korean Series in the first four of those seasons. Altherr has already tried to pick Park's brain about preparing for the championship battle during an extended break.
"He's definitely had a lot of experience with it," Altherr said. "It's always good to have guys like that, who have been through this, not just for me but for the other young Koreans that haven't been through this before."
Altherr made a piece of KBO history during the regular season with a pair of his teammates. He, designated hitter Na Sung-bum and catcher Yang Eui-ji became the first trio of teammates to put up at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in the same season.
Na belted a team-high 34 homers with 112 RBIs. Yang led the club with 124 RBIs and hit 33 dingers. If those two keep doing their things and Altherr, who did most of the damage batting eighth, can back them up in the bottom third of the line, the Dinos will be a handful.
Altherr also hopes young staff ace Koo Chang-mo will get his groove back. The 23-year-old left-hander was one of the most dominant starters in the early going, jumping out to a 9-0 start with a 1.55 ERA, plus 99 strikeouts in 87 innings. He then missed three months, starting in late July, with arm issues. He made one relief appearance and one start in the final days of the regular season in October.
"If he can dominate and get us a couple of wins, that will help us go a long way," Altherr said. "If he can return to what he had before he got hurt, that would obviously be a big boost for us."
As the second foreign hitter in Dinos' history to make it to the Korean Series, Altherr will inevitably draw comparisons to the one that came before him: Eric Thames.
Thames won the 2015 regular season MVP here and became the gold standard for all import hitters that have followed. But Thames' lone trip to the Korean Series in 2016 didn't go so well, as he batted only 2-for-16 with a home run while the Dinos got swept in four games by the Doosan Bears.
Asked if he'd be prepared to put up better numbers than that, he said with a laugh, "I would hope so. That's the goal."
"A lot of people are saying how foreign guys haven't really done too much in the playoffs for the Dinos," Altherr said. "And I'm like, 'Okay, I'll try.' Hopefully, it does go well for the whole team."
The Bears and the KT Wiz are playing in the penultimate round, with a spot in the Korean Series at stake. The Bears are up 2-0 in the best-of-five series and will advance to their sixth straight Korean Series with a win later Thursday.
During the regular season, the Dinos were 9-7 versus the Bears and 10-5 with a tie against the Wiz.
Altherr posted stronger numbers against the Bears: .333/.419/.685 with four home runs, 14 RBIs, four steals, and 12 runs in 15 games, compared to .255/.310/.529 against KT with four home runs, 15 RBIs, one steal and six runs.
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