BUSAN, South Korea – The Lotte Giants are back in the playoffs after a 3-1 victory over the SK Wyverns at Fortress Sajik. This is the third consecutive year that Lotte has qualified for the post season under Manager Jerry Royster. Before Royster came to Busan in 2008, the Giants were a laughingstock. They hadn't made a playoff appearance since 1999, and spent most of the 21st Century at or near the bottom of the league standings. Royster saw the talent on this club, and they've found a way to the playoffs each of his first three seasons.
Lotte broke a scoreless tie in the third inning after third baseman Hwang Jae-gyun tripled to lead off the inning. Outfielder Moon Gyu-hyeon drove in Hwang with a sacrifice fly to right-center.
Lotte pushed across a second run in the same inning when Lee Dae-ho singled with runners on first and second. The Giants threatened to bust the game wide open. Lotte loaded the bases with two outs, but outfielder Jeon Joon-woo struck out swinging to end the inning.
Lotte added another run in the sixth on an RBI single by Jeong Bo-myeong. SK struck back with a pinch-hit solo homer by Park Jae-hong. Lotte starter Song Seung-joon outdueled SK ace Kim Kwang-hyeon. Song tossed 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball. Song gave up five hits, two walks and one hit batsman while striking out five. Reliever Kim Sa-yul pitched the final 2 2/3 innings for the save. Kim struck out four and only allowed a base hit. This could be a confidence builder for Kim. If Lotte could have him as a viable option in the ninth inning, they'd be able to solve a problem that has plagued the Giants all year.
Today wasn't without drama off the field as well. Lotte learned that Karim Garcia would be suspended for the rest of the season and get a $3,000 fine for his actions on September 9th. Garcia was ejected for exchanging words with an umpire. Garcia also had to apologize to the umpire in person. Garcia took to Twitter to vent his frustrations and may or may not have earned himself a few extra games with his comments.
It's a cliche to write, but this season really was a roller coaster ride for Lotte. The team struggled through the opening months, but recovered during the summer. The Giants managed to stave off challenges from the 2009 Champion KIA Tigers and the painfully boring LG Twins.
Third baseman Lee Dae-ho made "The Leap." Lee has posted offensive numbers that few in KBO history have rivaled. He appears to be a lock for the Triple Crown and the 2010 MVP award. Here's hoping the Lotte brass doesn't decide to cut his salary again. He won the 2009 batting title and received a pay cut. If he wins the MVP, he'll probably get released.
Lee spent most of the year dueling with DH Hong Seong-heun at the top of the KBO offensive leader boards until Hong went out with a broken hand in mid-August.
Outfielder Kim Ju-chan is also the odds on favorite to finish as the league leader in stolen bases. This season also saw one of the most potent offenses in KBO history. Lotte has four hitters with over twenty homers and they could be adding a fifth next week. Lotte has seven regular players with an OPS over .800. Outfielder Jeon Joon-woo has really come into his own over the last month. Jeon's torrid late summer is one of the big reasons that Lotte is in the post season. Jeon is currently posting a slash line of .290/.344/.515 with 19 homers and 56 RBIs in 334 plate appearances.
Now, the Lotte pitching staff has been another story. The Giants have made strides in the pitching department in 2010, but the staff still leaves much to be desired. Lotte's bullpen issues are well-documented. Lotte ended 2010 without a single pitcher with double-digit saves or holds. Only Song Seung-joon and Jang Won-joon have double digit victories. Veteran starter Son Min-han never saw the field in 2010 and it looks like Cho Jeong-hoon isn't going to make it back from elbow surgery this year. Youngsters Kim Su-wan and Lee Jae-gon have emerged as reliable starting options for the Giants and Ryan Sadowski rebounded nicely after a disastrous start to his KBO career.
The Giants still have six games left, but I think it's safe to say that most of the regulars will be spectators for the rest of the season. I would like to see DH Hong Seong-heun swing a bat in a game before the season ends, but everyone else I want wearing jackets and cheering.
Lotte opens the playoffs in the last week of September in a five game series against the third place Doosan Bears.
You can check out Matthew's popular blog, True Stories of Korean Baseball, where he follows the entire KBO throughout the week.