(ATTN: ADDS comments in paras 11-13, 17-21, photos)
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Nov. 8 (Yonhap) — A teenage rookie pitcher will make his South Korean baseball postseason debut in his team’s very first playoff game Monday.
The KT Wiz on Sunday announced right-hander So Hyeong-jun as their starter for Game 1 of the second round Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) playoff series against the Doosan Bears. The first pitch is 6:30 p.m. Monday at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul.
The Wiz earned a bye to the second round after finishing the regular season in second place. This will be their first postseason appearance in franchise history, which dates back to 2015.
The Bears, who finished in third place, knocked off the LG Twins in two straight games in the best-of-three first round to get to this stage. They’re trying to win their second straight championship and their fourth in six years.
The entire best-of-five series will be played at the dome as the neutral venue. The start of the regular season was delayed by over a month due to the coronavirus outbreak, and the postseason started in November for the first time in league history. To keep fans and players warm in cold conditions, Gocheok, the only domed ballpark in the country, will host all games of this series and again in the Korean Series.
So, an odds-on favorite to win the Rookie of the Year, went 13-6 with a 3.86 ERA in 24 regular season starts. He was tied for most wins by a homegrown pitcher this season.
The 19-year-old was excellent against the Bears during the regular season, with a 3-1 record and a 2.51 ERA in six games.
Designated hitter Jose Miguel Fernandez had the most success against So, batting 5-for-12 with two doubles and an RBI. First baseman Oh Jae-il went 4-for-10 with three walks and an RBI. Fernandez and Oh usually bat second and third in the Bears’ lineup.
Although rookies often hit a wall toward the end of the season, So pitched much better in the second half (8-1, 2.50 ERA) than in the first half (5-5, 5.29 ERA). So didn’t allow any home runs in 68 1/3 innings in the latter half, after serving up six long balls in his first 64 2/3 innings of the season.
Since July, So has never allowed more than three runs in a game, a stretch of 15 starts and two relief appearances.
Sending in a teenager to start the ever-important first game of a postseason series may be seen as a bold move, but KT manager Lee Kang-chul defended the choice Sunday. He said So has been the team’s best pitcher against the Bears, and he will bring a sense of stability to the mound.
“During the regular season, he often helped us extend a winning streak or stop a losing streak,” Lee said before practice at KT Wiz Park in Suwon, 45 kilometers south of Seoul. “When I sat down with our data analysts, they strongly recommended we start So Hyeong-jun for Game 1.”
Lee, a former pitcher and pitching coach, said making timely calls to the bullpen will be the key in any postseason series and hinted that he may use one of his starters in a relief role.
The Bears will counter with American right-hander Chris Flexen. He is coming off a brilliant start against the Twins in Game 1 of the previous series last Wednesday, when he struck out 11 in six dominant innings in a 4-0 victory.
Flexen also pitched well against the Wiz in the regular season. In two starts spanning 10 innings, Flexen had a 1-0 record and a 0.90 ERA, with 15 strikeouts against two walks. The Wiz managed only six hits against Flexen, all of them singles.
Infielder Hwang Jae-gyun had half of those six singles. But Mel Rojas Jr., a leading MVP candidate as the KBO leader in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage, was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts against Flexen.
Doosan manager Kim Tae-hyoung said he was wary of facing So and added: “He pitches like a veteran. He knows how to change speeds and pick his spots when facing hitters.
“He did well against us this season, but it’s something we have to overcome,” Kim added after practice at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul.
As for a Wiz hitter to watch, Kim singled out Rojas Jr., saying, “He has power, and he can also make good contact.”
Kim also revealed his next two starting pitchers in the best-of-five series. Right-hander Choi Won-jun, who was excellent out of the bullpen in the previous series, will start Game 2 on Tuesday. Raul Alcantara, the KBO’s only 20-game winner in the regular season, will start Game 3 on Thursday.
Alcantara pitched with a stiff neck when he faced the Twins in Game 2 of the first round last Thursday. Kim said Alcantara is still not 100 percent and will get some extra rest.