Led by MVP candidates, Heroes look to take down defending champions Wiz in KBO postseason

SEOUL, Oct. 14 (Yonhap) — Boasting a pair of MVP candidates on the mound and at the plate, the Kiwoom Heroes will try to foil the KT Wiz’s bid for their second straight South Korean baseball title.

These two clubs will clash in the best-of-five first round in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) postseason starting Sunday. As the higher seed at No. 3, the Heroes will have the home field advantage and will host Games 1, 2 and, if necessary, 5. This will be the first postseason meeting between these two.

The first pitch of the opening game is at 2 p.m. Sunday at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul.

In this file photo from Sept. 30, 2022, Lee Jung-hoo of the Kiwoom Heroes smiles after scoring a run against the SSG Landers during the top of the 10th inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Incheon SSG Landers Field in Incheon, some 30 kilometers west of Seoul. (Yonhap)

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The Heroes and the Wiz finished the regular season with an identical record at 80-62-2 (wins-losses-ties), but the Heroes finished third by virtue of winning the series, 8-7-1.

The Wiz were three outs away in their regular season finale from locking down the third seed, before giving up two runs against the LG Twins in the bottom of the ninth to fall 6-5.

Relegated to fourth place, the Wiz had to beat the Kia Tigers 6-2 in a wild card game Thursday to set up a date with the Heroes.

And now they have to contend with two of the KBO’s brightest stars.

Outfielder Lee Jung-hoo grabbed the Heroes by the collar and dragged them into October baseball against all odds. The sixth-year player submitted one of the greatest offensive seasons in KBO history.

The 24-year-old led the league in five major categories. He won his second straight batting title with a .349 average, and also topped everyone with 113 RBIs, 193 hits, a .421 on-base percentage and a .575 slugging percentage. Lee is only the sixth player to lead the KBO in at least five offensive categories.

Lee batted .400/.500/.600 against the Wiz in 16 regular season games, with a home run, five doubles and two triples. He also drew 10 walks but struck out only twice.

His teammate on the mound, right-hander An Woo-jin, was just as dominant on the pitching side. Lee fell one category, home runs, shy of the batting Triple Crown, and An, the likely Game 1 starter Sunday, came even closer to winning the pitching Triple Crown.

He led the KBO with a 2.11 ERA and 224 strikeouts, one shy of matching the single-season record set by Ariel Miranda of the Doosan Bears last year. An tied for second with 15 wins, one behind Casey Kelly of the LG Twins.

An, 23, pitched more innings than anyone with 196, and allowed fewer base runners than anyone, with a 0.95 in walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP).

Opponents hit only .188 against An, the lowest such number in the KBO this season. He was also the hardest thrower in the league, averaging 153.4 kph (95.3 mph) with his fastballs.

An had the worse numbers against the Wiz than any other opponent in the regular season. He had a 5.11 ERA in four starts against them, with 14 earned runs on 26 hits and 12 walks in 24 2/3 innings. To illustrate the degree of An’s problems against the Wiz: He had a sub-2.00 ERA against six opponents.

Remarkably, An served up only four homers all season, and one of them was hit by backup KT outfielder Moon Sang-chul, who is unlikely to see much action, if any, in this series.

Among the regulars, Bae Jung-dae, who drove in three runs in the wild card victory Thursday, batted 4-for-10 with four RBIs against An. Park Byung-ho, the former Kiwoom slugger, was 2-for-9 versus An with four strikeouts. Park is not fully back from a serious ankle injury suffered last month and is being limited as the designated hitter.

The Heroes are well rested, having played only two games over the final eight days of the regular season because they had fewer rainouts to make up than anyone.

The Wiz have had to play a few pressure-packed games down the stretch in a bid to secure the third seed and the bye into the first round, including six games in an eight-day span.

After reaching a low point by getting walked off in the regular season finale, the Wiz are feeling good about themselves again after the wild card victory and the subsequent two-day break. Their starting rotation should be lined up nicely against the Heroes.

The Heroes’ rotation is top heavy with left-hander Eric Jokisch, who ranked sixth with a 2.57 ERA, to follow An in the postseason, but much less reliable options beyond the duo. The Heroes had the lowest starting pitching ERA in the league with 3.41, but An and Jokisch did the heavy lifting.

The Wiz have a deeper rotation that ranked third overall with a 3.53 ERA. So Hyeong-jun held the Tigers to two runs in 5 1/3 innings in the wild card game Thursday. Other homegrown starters, Ko Young-pyo (13-8, 3.26 ERA) and Um Sang-back (11-2, 2.95 ERA), enjoyed strong regular seasons. Starter Wes Benjamin struck out the side in relief in the eighth inning of the wild card game but should be available early in this upcoming series.

Both clubs graded out slightly below average offensively in the regular season, but the Heroes have a potentially lethal weapon in former major league All-Star Yasiel Puig.

In the second half of the regular season, Puig posted an on-base plus slugging (OPS) of .962, second in the league behind only Lee Jung-hoo’s 1.031. He also ranked second with 12 home runs after the All-Star break.