Veteran hitter, reliever thriving under postseason pressure
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Oct. 25 (Yonhap) -- Kiwoom Heroes' veteran designated hitter Lee Yong-kyu had one of the worst seasons of his 19-year career this year, batting only .199 in 86 games.
But his manager, Hong Won-ki, still entrusted him with the No. 2 spot in the lineup in a key postseason game Tuesday, hoping the pesky hitter could give LG Twins starter Adam Plutko all he could handle in Game 2 of the second round in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) postseason.
Lee did exactly that, delivering two hits in two at-bats against Plutko, including a two-run single in the second inning at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul.
Lee's second-inning knock gave the Heroes a 4-0 lead during a five-run frame, and the Heroes hung on for a 7-6 victory. The best-of-five series is now tied at 1-1.
That Lee got both singles off first pitches came as a surprise, because he has built a career out of fouling off pitches and working deep in the count to frustrate pitchers.
Lee said afterward it was all by design.
"In postseason games, teams will only send their top pitchers to the mound, and if you aren't aggressive, you will fall behind in the count," Lee said. "So I've decided to swing earlier in the count than I did in the regular season. Pitchers also try not to walk anyone, so they're going to come out and throw strikes. I won't take pitches in those situations."
The 37-year-old said he is playing with an extra sense of urgency this postseason, hoping to reach the Korean Series one more time before he calls it quits. Lee won the Korean Series title with the Kia Tigers in 2009 but hasn't been back to the championship round since. The Heroes are now two wins away from that trip.
"I've told younger guys that an opportunity like this doesn't come along very often," Lee said. "This time of year, individual stats don't matter. It's all about winning games. I am just trying to help the club in whatever ways I can."
The Heroes nearly blew a 6-0 lead Tuesday. The Twins got to within 7-6 after five innings, and that's when Lee gave his pep talk in the dugout.
"We were still leading, but the vibe in the dugout felt like we were trailing. So I had to speak up," Lee said. "I told the guys that we were playing well and our pitchers would take care of the rest."
Indeed, the bullpen did yeoman's work after starter Eric Jokisch was pulled with two runners on and nobody out in the fifth.
The relief corps limited the Twins to one earned run over the final five frames, with starter-turned-reliever Choi won-tae providing two shutout innings.
"I told the coaches I could throw 120 pitches today," Choi cracked. "I can throw harder now than before, because I only have to throw a few innings. When I was a starter, I had to worry about control, and so I didn't always throw at full speed."
Choi said he has learned not to put too much pressure on himself and to enjoy being in the high-stakes games more than in the past.
With the vast majority of the sellout crowd of 23,750 fans rooting for the Twins at Jamsil, the setting could have been intimidating for visiting players. But Choi didn't mind it so much.
"I think it's fun when I retire those guys and the crowd goes quiet," Choi said with a smile. "It's exhilarating."
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