BUSAN, South Korea — Lotte has only 12 games left, but five are against potential (very, very likely) playoff teams. There is a bit of good news as Lotte still has six against the bottom-feeding Hanwha Eagles. Either way, this is shaping up to be Lotte’s fourth straight year in the post-season. The days of seventh place finishes and the Lotte Midgets are officially over.
Lotte had an uneven series last week, but the path to the second seed in KBO playoffs is still fairly clear.
The KBO, being much smaller than the MLB or even Japan’s NPB, does their playoffs a little differently. The KBO regular season matters. If a team finishes in first place in the KBO, they go straight to the Korean Series. The second place team gets a free pass to the second round. The third and fourth place teams are forced to win three playoff series in order to become champions.
Lotte only played four times last week thanks to the makeup schedule. They won one, lost one and suffered through a pair of twelve inning ties.
The Giants started their week on Thursday instead of the usual Tuesday start. Woohoo! Three-day vacation! The Lotte offense started with a bang on Thursday against the SK Wyverns. Right fielder Sohn Ah-seop hit a two-run blast in the first inning. The only problem was they only mustered six base runners for the next 11 innings.
SK wasn’t much better as Giants’ starter Goh Won-joon handcuffed the Wyverns for seven innings. Goh gave up only two runs on four hits and two walks while striking out six. Five Lotte relievers combined to throw five shutout innings and only allowed a single base hit. Who says Lotte has trouble in the bullpen? The answer? Everyone who has watched a game other than last Thursday.
Friday saw an 8-1 Lotte lead turn into a 10-9 SK win thanks to the return of the bad bullpen. Reliever Lee Jae-gon came in after Ryan Sadowski limited the Wyverns to three runs over seven innings and he got absolutely torched. Lee gave up five runs on four hits and a walk. The game was tied at eight after nine innings. so it was on to extras again.
Lotte picked up a run in the top of the 10th on a solo homer from right fielder Sohn Ah-seop, but gave the lead right back in the bottom of the tenth. SK right fielder Park Jae-hong hit a two-run double off of Lotte reliever Park Hee-su to walk-off the Giants.
Lotte came back the next day and earned a 7-6 win against the Nexen Heroes. Nexen tied the game at sixth with a three-run rally in the top of the sixth inning. Lotte untied the game in the bottom of the sixth after Sohn Ah-seop hit an off-the-wall triple and scored on a Lee Dae-ho sac fly.
The Jekyll and Hyde bullpen was called on again to keep the slim lead. This time they were able to be a competent Dr. Jekyll instead of a lead-torching Mr. Hyde. Lim Kyeong-wan earned his third W. Lee Myeong-woo got his third hold and Kim Sa-yul picked up his 16th save.
Lotte ended the week with a 2-2 tie against the Heroes. The Lotte offense sputtered all day. The Giants banged out 13 hits, drew two walks and had one HBP, but they never really made the Heroes pay for it.
With the game tied at two, Lotte DH Hong Seong-heun lead off the fourth inning with a triple. Hong may or may not have needed oxygen after running 270 feet from home to third. The next batter, catcher Kang Min-ho, grounded out weekly to short. Hong must have been inspired by his triple or in need of medical attention because he broke for the plate…and was out by a solid ten feet.
Lotte starter Song Seong-heun tossed seven innings of two-run baseball. Song gave up only six hits and three walks while striking out five. The bullpen was solid again and gave the Giants five innings of three-hit, one-walk baseball.
The bullpen had three solid performances out of four, but two of those games came against Nexen. Nexen hasn’t played a meaningful baseball game in months and the Heroes have a hard time remembering if its time to swing a bat or a golf club. It’s easier to look good against Nexen in September than it is against Samsung or KIA in October.
Lotte needs to do a better job of managing the starters workloads during this month. The starters are going to need to work deep into games if Lotte is going to have any chance at a KBO title. Six innings isn’t going to cut it against the better offenses in the KBO. That’s three full innings that the Lotte bullpen will need to pitch against a team capable of hitting mediocre pitching. Bad things can and will happen.
A smart plan for Lotte would be to switch to a four-man rotation with Sadowski, Bootcheck, Song and Jang Won-joon. Starter Goh Won-joon would move into the bullpen and either work as a bridge to the ninth inning or take over ninth inning duties. He’s capable of working multiple innings at a time and could be the difference between watching someone else celebrate for the fourth straight year and spraying teammates with champagne…or Hite. Hite isn’t quite as sticky and doesn’t burn the eyes as badly as fine champagne.
Lotte starts this week with a huge two-game series against the first place Samsung Lions in Daegu. Lotte face the Hanhwa Eagles for two games in Cheongju and finish the week with two games against Doosan in Jamsil. I hope the bags are packed and the wives and girlfriends have been kissed. It’s going to be a long week on the road with stops in three cities.
You can read Matthew's blog, True Stories of Korean Baseball, where he follows the entire KBO each week.