Battle of homegrown aces set in Korean Series opener

5:17 October 31, 2022

SEOUL, Oct. 31 (Yonhap) — Two of the best homegrown pitchers in South Korean baseball this season will go head-to-head to open the championship series Tuesday.

The SSG Landers will host the Kiwoom Heroes in Game 1 of the Korean Series at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Incheon SSG Landers Field in Incheon, some 30 kilometers west of Seoul. And the home team announced Monday that veteran lefty Kim Kwang-hyun will take the ball in the first game.

The Heroes said they will counter with their own South Korean ace, right-hander An Woo-jin.

In the regular season, An and Kim finished first and second in ERA with 2.11 and 2.13, respectively. Kim carried a 1.99 ERA into his final regular season start on Oct. 5 and then surrendered four earned runs in six innings to finish just behind An.

Kim is a four-time Korean Series champion with the Landers franchise, with all of those titles coming during their prior existence as the SK Wyverns. The 34-year-old will be pitching in his seventh Korean Series.

In 10 previous games in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) championship round, Kim went 3-2 with two saves and a 2.18 ERA across 41 1/3 innings. He has yet to surrender a home run in the Korean Series and keeping the ball in the park will be crucial against a Heroes team featuring some dangerous bats.

In four regular season starts versus the Heroes, Kim went 2-1 with a 2.25 ERA. Lee Jung-hoo, the two-time batting champion and the KBO’s most complete hitter today, batted .364/.417/.636 against Kim with a homer and four RBIs. Lee did not strike out against Kim in 12 plate appearances.

Kim kept most other Kiwoom hitters in check, including former National League All-Star Yasiel Puig, who managed just one hit in 11 at-bats against the ex-St. Louis Cardinals pitcher.

“I made the decision to start Kwang-hyun in the first game right after we clinched our regular season title,” Landers manager Kim Won-hyong said at the pre-Korean Series press conference Monday. “He is the best pitcher in the league today, and he has a ton of experience. This was a no-brainer choice.”

An, 23, will be pitching in his second Korean Series. He was a reliever in the Heroes’ previous Korean Series appearance in 2019, and allowed three runs in 1 1/3 innings across two outings against the Doosan Bears.

He has since evolved into the KBO’s most dominant starter. He led all pitchers this season with 224 strikeouts, one shy of tying the all-time record set by Ariel Miranda of the Bears last year.

An has pitched well so far this postseason too. In the first round against the KT Wiz, An allowed two runs in 12 innings over two starts while striking out 17 and walking one. He pitched once against the LG Twins in the next round, holding them to two runs on six hits in six innings in a gutsy outing to set up a 6-4 win in Game 3.

An has already thrown 18 innings this postseason, on top of a career-high 196 innings in the regular season. An will also be pitching on four days’ rest for the second straight outing, but his manager, Hong Won-ki, said he still has plenty of trust in his young ace.

“I think An Woo-jin’s performances in the regular season and in the postseason tell you everything,” Hong said. “He’s the heart and soul of our team. He gives us the best chance to win the first game.”

An suffered eight losses during the regular season and three of them came against the Landers, though he still had an excellent 2.53 ERA over 32 innings in five starts and did not serve up a home run.

Han Yoo-seom, the 2018 Korean Series MVP, had the most success against An, batting 6-for-15 with five doubles. Outfielders Kim Kang-min and Choi Ji-hoon had four hits apiece against An, while former American League All-Star Choo Shin-soo went just 1-for-9.

The Landers topped the regular season with 138 home runs and tied for first with 720 runs scored.