BUSAN, South Korea - The Lotte Giants’ championship drought has stretched to 19 years after Sunday’s elimination in the second round of the playoffs. It’s not time to start mentioning things like “curses” or “billy goats” or any other nonsense that fans of long suffering franchises have clung to over the years. Although the “Curse of Felix Jose” has a romantic air to it.
Lotte started the week by getting shutout, 3-0, on Tuesday. Starter Ryan Sadowski and the Lotte bullpen did their best to keep the Giants in the game, but it’s hard to win baseball games when you score zero runs.
Sadowski threw 5 2/3 innings of one-run baseball. Sadowski gave up three hits, three walks and a hit batsman while striking out five.
Sadowski was cruising until the fourth inning. An error by second baseman Cho Seong-hwan put runners at the corners with no outs. Sadowski struck out SK right fielder Ahn Chi-yong for the first out of the inning, but the next batter, SK DH Choi Dong-su, ripped a single into left to break a scoreless tie.
SK piled on with a few late runs to ice the game and the Giants found themselves facing a 2-1 series deficit.
Lotte got some measure of revenge by shutting out the Wyverns, 2-0, on Wednesday. Lotte played game four like it was the last game of their season. It was a solid strategy because, well, it could have been the last game of the season if they lost.
Chris Bootcheck got the start for Lotte, but only stuck around for 3 1/3 innings. Bootcheck only gave up two hits and two walks while striking out two. He was yanked after walking a batter in the fourth inning. Lotte ace Jang Won-joon was the odds on favorite to start Game 5, but he'll likely be unavailable because he threw four innings (52 pitches, 32 strikes) of shutout relief work. Jang gave up one hit and one walk while striking out five.
The decision to go with Jang was a curious one. If Jang was going to pitch in relief, why not just start him? The strategy worked and his four innings of relief were key in winning game four, but it was an odd decision at the time.
Lotte broke a scoreless tie in the fifth inning during a fairly bizarre sequence. Second baseman Cho Seong-hwan lead off the inning by trying to bunt for a hit. SK pitcher Yoon Hee-sang fielded the ball cleanly, but the throw was well wide of the bag and ended up in right field. Cho advanced to second on a sac bunt from shortstop Moon Gyu-hyeon. Left fielder Kim Ju-chan singled to center and advanced to second on the relay, but Cho made a break for home, but was out by about three feet for the second inning. Right fielder Son Ah-seop poked a single through the left side of the infield to drive in Kim and score Lotte's first run of the game.
The Giants added some insurance in the sixth inning when Lee Dae-ho hit a solo homer to make the lead 2-0. It was good to see someone told Lee the playoffs started.
Lotte closer Kim Sa-yul gave up a walk and a hit, but struck out two during a scoreless ninth inning for the save.
Lotte’s win pushed the series to game five in Fortress Sajik. The game was delayed a day thanks to some unseasonable rainy weather on Saturday.
Lotte got off to a good start and tagged SK starter Kim Kwang-hyeon for a run in the first inning on a RBI double from center fielder Jeon Joon-woo after a lead off triple from left fielder Kim Ju-chan.
Things went downhill for the Giants shortly thereafter. Lotte starter Song Seung-joon was tagged for a two-run homer in the third inning. Things got worse once Song got the hook in the fifth inning.
Manager Yang tried to work a little game four magic with Jang and Chris Bootcheck, but both appeared flat and Lotte was facing a 6-1 deficit by the time they left the game.
The Giants offense battled back with a three-run rally in the bottom of the sixth to cut the SK lead to 6-4. DH Hong Seong-heun hit an off-the-wall double to plate the first run of the rally and catcher Kang Min-ho hit another off-the-wall double later in the inning to drive in a pair.
SK iced the game in the eighth inning with another two-run bomb from SK first baseman Park Jeong-kwon. The two-homer day was enough to earn Park the series MVP award.
Getting out of the first round of the playoffs has been a problem for Lotte. Well, good news. They managed to bypass the first round completely by finishing second.
Lotte has their outfield basically set for the next few seasons with the emergence of guys like Jeon Joon-woo and Sohn Ah-seop. The Lotte bullpen is also starting to take shape now that Kim Sa-yul has emerged as a competent option in the ninth inning. Lotte needs to address the bridge to Kim either internally with Goh Won-joon or by adding a non-Korean reliever.
The biggest hurdle that Lotte overcame in 2011 was breaking in a new manager and coaching staff. Lotte got off to a rocky start to the season and Manager Yang appeared to be in over his head. He stuck with a few bad ideas (Hong playing left and Jeon playing third) and made a few mistakes managing the pitching staff (Goh and Brian Corey among others), but Yang figured things out. Not only did he get the team back on track, but he guided them to their first appearance in the second round since 1999. It’s not easy making the jump from college to the pros’. Yang proved he belonged in the KBO this season and hopefully he’ll be here to stay.
Lotte has one huge issue that needs to be addressed in the off season. Lee Dae-ho is a free agent this year and he’s expressed a desire to leave Korea for either Japan or the US. It’s very unlikely that Dae-ho would get a big contract from a team in Major League Baseball. It’s very likely that he’ll get a large offer from a Japanese team, but the recent history of Korean ballplayers in Japan has been very poor. Half of Hanhwa’s dynamic duo of Lee Beom-ho and Kim Tae-gyun is already back in Korea and the other half will be back next season.
It’s been a long time since a hitter made a successful jump to the NPB, but it sounds like Dae-ho is willing to listen. The question is “Will Lotte step up with an offer worthy of the league’s best hitter?” Lotte hasn’t paid Dae-ho what he’s worth because they had all the leverage in negotiations. There wasn’t a need to pay Lee because they had him under control. They might be more willing to step up with a decent contract, if they actually think Lee will leave.
Lotte also needs to decide what to do with its non-Korean pitchers. Ryan Sadowski could be back, but he could also go the Danny Rios route and jump to Japan. Chris Bootcheck was inconsistent in his time in Korea and it’s unclear if he wants to stay in Korea or will be welcomed back by the Lotte brain trust.
We usually end this by previewing the next week of games. Well, the next week of games won’t happen for six months and SK/Samsung is basically a Lotte fan’s worst nightmare for the Korean Series and it should probably be ignored. SK just eliminated the Giants and Samsung is Lotte’s biggest rival. The only possible rooting interest is for the earth to open up under Daegu’s rat box stadium and swallow both teams. There might be aftershocks in Busan and no one wants that.
Enjoy the winter. Stay warm. It’s almost time for me to stare out the window and wait for spring.
Thanks for reading.
You can read Matthew's blog, True Stories of Korean Baseball, where he follows the entire KBO each week.