(LEAD) Clutch hitter, young ace come through for KT Wiz in postseason victory

SEOUL, Oct. 13 (Yonhap) — Few things from the career statistics page for KT Wiz outfielder Bae Jung-dae stand out. The 27-year-old has never hit .300 or launched 20 home runs in a season. The speedy one stole 22 bases in 2020 but also got caught 13 times. After making his debut in 2015, Bae only became an everyday player in 2020. And over his three full seasons, he has been a perfectly average hitter.

But what Bae’s page on the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) website doesn’t show is this: he has seven walkoff hits and one walkoff sacrifice fly in his career. He seems to be the old school baseball lifers’ answer to new age, analytically-driven minds that, yes, clutch hitting does exist in baseball.

Bae Jung-dae of the KT Wiz celebrates after hitting a three-run double against the Kia Tigers during the bottom of the eighth inning of a Korea Baseball Organization wild card game at KT Wiz Park in Suwon, 35 kilometers south of Seoul, on Oct. 13, 2022. (Yonhap)

Though not in a walkoff situation, Bae did deliver the goods in a crucial spot for the Wiz in postseason action Thursday, knocking in three insurance runs with one swing of the bat in the eighth inning of a 6-2 victory over the Kia Tigers in the wild card game.

He went 2-for-3 with a run and three RBIs in the win, which sent the Wiz to the first round against the Kiwoom Heroes starting Sunday.

The Wiz scored three times in the bottom third, after Bae led off that inning with a walk. The Tigers responded with a run each in the fourth and the fifth, but the Wiz couldn’t pull away, bouncing into double plays in the fifth and sixth innings.

Bae tried to get things going in the seventh with a leadoff single but was stranded there.

Then after the Wiz loaded the bases in the eighth, Bae channeled his clutch self once again.

The Tigers brought in starter Lee Eui-lee to keep it a 3-2 game in the eighth inning. Lee got a strikeout but then walked three of the next four batters to load the bases.

Reliever Jang Hyun-sik was summoned to clean up the mess, but Bae drove a hanging slider into the left field corner for a double. It cleared the bases for the Wiz and broke the hearts of the Tigers, who couldn’t muster up a response in the top ninth.

Bae said he had taken advice from his hitting coach, Kim Kang, to heart.

“Before that at-bat, the coach told me to look for a slider from Jang Hyun-sik,” Bae said. “The first pitch was a slider but it was in a tough spot. After the fastball missed the zone, I was pretty sure the third pitch would be a slider. I didn’t hit it as well as I wanted to, but it got the job done.”

Bae said the key to his success in clutch situations is his aggressive approach at the plate.

“I try to swing early in the count,” Bae said. “When I am struggling, I tend to foul off pitches at two strikes. Today, I was able to put the ball in play early on.”

KT starter So Hyeong-jun could breathe a little easier as the Wiz’s lead ballooned to 6-2 and closer Kim Jae-yoon threw a scoreless ninth to make a winner out of the 21-year-old right-hander.

So was solid, if not spectacular, in his fourth career postseason outing. He had a 0.60 ERA in three previous appearances, one of which had come in relief. In two starts, So had not allowed any run over 12 2/3 innings.

That streak ended in the top of the fourth inning Thursday, when So, after three perfect innings, gave up a double and two singles for the Tigers’ first run.

So pitched himself further into trouble by issuing a walk to load the bases. Then Hwang Dae-in, the only Tiger to hit a homer off So during the regular season, stepped in and took two straight balls.

Catcher Jang Sung-woo paid a quick mound visit for a pep talk. So then regrouped and offered Hwang four straight two-seam fastballs, his bread-and-butter pitch.

Hwang swung and missed on the last one to end the Tigers’ rally.

So said afterward the mound conference was all about the two-seamer.

“Sung-woo said I should just throw the two-seam fastball to the heart of the plate and dare (Hwang) to hit it,” So said. “That gave me the confidence I needed.”

So overcame his own fielding error that led to the Tigers’ second run in the fifth, when he failed to grab the toss from first baseman Kang Baek-ho. So was lifted after giving up a one-out double in the sixth, and the bullpen did the rest.

So was the Game 1 starter in last year’s Korean Series and once again got the nod for the Wiz’s first postseason game. He said he wasn’t feeling any extra pressure that comes with the assignment.

“I was concentrating on the process, rather than the result,” he said. “I knew we’d be in a tough situation if I gave up runs early on. But I didn’t want to worry about that because whenever I try too hard on the mound, it never helps.”

Kim Min-su got the next five outs, and starter Wes Benjamin, working on two days’ rest, struck out the side in the eighth, before Kim Jae-yoon, the closer, pitched around a two-out single to finish the game.

Both Bae and So played important roles in the Wiz’s run to their first Korean Series title last year, and the duo were at it again from their first postseason game of 2022.