BUSAN, South Korea — This past week was a welcome change of pace for the Lotte faithful. Between a three-game set with the surprisingly mediocre Doosan Bears and the All-star festivities over the weekend, Lotte fans actually had something to feel good about. The Giants are only 1 1/2 games in back of the creaky LG Twins for the fourth and final playoff spot. We’ve got ourselves a real pennant race.
It’s starting to become obvious that June was the low water mark for the Giants. They were stuck in seventh place and duking it out with the Hanhwa Eagles and Nexen Heroes for the top pick in the 2012 KBO draft. The season was starting to look lost as the losses piled up.
After jettisoning pitcher Brian Corey, the team responded. The Giants are 6-2 (with a lot of rainouts) since Corey was cut. Corey was not the problem in the Lotte dugout, but sometimes releasing an easily replaceable player (sorry non-Korean dudes, but it’s true) can be a wake up call. If any team was in need of one, it was these Lotte Giants.
It helps that Lotte has played a very easy schedule since then, but they can only beat the teams that are scheduled. Since Corey’s release, Lotte has faced Doosan twice, Hanhwa and LG. That was a great stretch of games to pick up a few W’s. The schedule makers did the Giants a big favor with their July schedule.
Lotte started the week by taking two in a row from the underachievers of the 2011 season, the Doosan Bears. Doosan has been one of the top teams in the KBO for the past five years, but they’ve floundered so badly in the 2011 season that their manager got the axe in May.
Lotte might have faced a struggling team, but this week was not easy. The Giants needed some late inning heroics from the offense to bail them out of a jam in the first game of the series.
Lotte held a 3-1 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth, but with the Lotte bullpen and defense, is any lead safe? After Lotte pitcher Chris Bootcheck walked the lead off hitter, Doosan second baseman Goh Yeong-min hit a screamer to left field that landed in the third row for a two-run homer and tied the game at three. Bootcheck allowed a few more hits, but reliever Kim Sa-yul managed bail the Giants out and to get out of the ninth.
Lotte answered in the top of the tenth. Lotte put runners on second and third with two outs. Little-used pinch hitter Son Yong-seok poked a base-hit into the outfield and advanced to second on the throw. Both runners were able to score to give Lotte a 5-3 advantage.
Reliever Kim Sa-yul stayed in for the bottom of the tenth and recorded a 1-2-3 inning to end the game and give Lotte a good start to the last series before the All-star break.
Lost in this one was another solid effort from starter Goh Won-joon. Goh tossed 6 2/3 innings of one-run baseball. Goh gave up seven hits and two walks while striking out five. Goh has performed like a frontline starter this year after starting the year in the bullpen. Goh owns a 3.59 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in 92 2/3 innings for the Giants so far. The problem that he’s had is that he’s walked too many (36) and struck out too few (50).
Lotte snatched the second game by a score of 13-5. Lotte center fielder and 2011 All-star Jeon Joon-woo lead the way for the Giants' offense. Jeon went 3-4 with a stolen base and three runs scored. Left fielder Kim Ju-chan, first baseman Lee Dae-ho and DH Hong Seong-heun each drove in two runs. Backup first baseman Park Jong-yoon didn't get a lot of at bats, but he made them count. Park blasted a three run homer in garbage time to make this one look laughable in the newspaper.
Lotte starter Ryan Sadowski threw 6 2/3 innings of two-run ball. Sadowski gave up five hits and three walks. Ryan was unable to strike out any of the patient Doosan batters.
If Lotte is going to do anything in the last two months of the season, the offense needs to hit like it did in 2010. The Lotte offense bashed the Giants into the playoffs in 2010 and the offense will need to carry the load again in the stretch run. DH Hong Seong-heun needs to find a way to return to form.
After setting career highs in homers (26) and RBIs (116) last year, Hong has struggled for the entire first half of the 2011 season. He’s managed only four homers and 38 RBIs while hitting in the heart of the Giants’order. Part of his poor start was do to the disastrous plan to put Hong in the outfield for most of training camp and the first month of the season. It was obvious that he wasn’t comfortable out there and the experiment should have ended before it started. He owns a .300+ batting average in both June and July, but he needs to rediscover his power stroke if Lotte is going to go anywhere.
Outfielder Jeon Joon-woo has morphed from a solid guy to have around to a legit every day player this season. Jeon has been hitting near the top of the order for most of 2011, and he already has career highs in doubles, runs scored and stolen bases. He’s proven to be a catalyst for the Lotte offense and needs to continue to play his role.
Slugger Lee Dae-ho picked up basically where he left off in 2010. Lee is writing his name alongside some of the truly great players and pioneers of the KBO. Now the concern is whether he’ll become a distraction. If Lotte struggles or falls out of the race, speculation over Lee’s possible exit during the next offseason will dominate the headlines and could become an issue in the clubhouse. Focus is critical. Especially during the stretch run.
Lotte dropped the rubber match of the series, 6-4. Starter Jang Won-joon was fairly mediocre and the Lotte offense didn’t offer much until the game was basically decided.
Jang was battered for four runs on nine hits, four walks and a hit batsman during his 5 2/3 innings of work. Jang did manage to strike out five Bears before hitting the showers.
The LG Twins have gone out of their way to let the Giants get back into the pennant race. LG was unable to keep pace with the KIA’s, Samsung’s and SK’s of the Korean baseball world and they look like their in prime position to get caught from behind. LG’s starting rotation is nothing impressive and their bullpen is almost as mediocre as the Lotte ‘pen is. The LG offense does stack up fairly favorably with any of the better teams in the KBO, but their veterans have already started to fatigue and there are still two months left in the season.
Lotte was well-represented at the the all-star game on Saturday. Four Giants were voted in (down from nine last year, but hey, they’re in fifth) and five Giants saw action in an adequately memorable ten inning affair. As far as exhibition games go, this year’s game was palatable. But it ended in fairly disappointing fashion for everyone except LG fans. LG’s Lee Byung-gyu won the MVP award thanks to an early RBI single and a walk-off base-hit in the bottom of the tenth. The base hit in the tenth was one of the luckiest walk-offs ever. Two more inches to the left and it was a foul ball and Lee doesn’t get to pose with the trophy.
Let him have his All-star MVP trophy and an All-star game win. It will keep him company when he’s watching Lotte on TV in October.
Regular season play resumes on Tuesday night with the Giants facing the SK Wyverns and Doosan Bears this week at Fortress Sajik. Starter Goh Won-joon gets the first crack at Jeong Geun-woo and the SK Wyverns.
The march to the playoffs begins now.
You can read Matthew's blog, True Stories of Korean Baseball, where he follows the entire KBO each week.