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Tigers struggle with injuries before season begins

Top players head home early, young prospects spot an opportunity
Mar 05,2019
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Kia Tigers manager Kim Ki-tai, center, talks to the players and coaches during spring training in Okinawa, Japan. [YONHAP]
Things are already going wrong for the Kia Tigers and the 2019 season hasn’t even started yet.

After a disappointing 2018, the Tigers are hoping to make a comeback this year. Just two seasons ago, in 2017, the Gwangju team had their most successful season ever, winning both the regular season and Korean Series. In 2018, they barely clawed their way into the postseason.

Although Gwangju’s passionate baseball fans have high hopes for the 2019 season, preparation isn’t exactly going to plan. Still licking their wounds from last year’s struggles, the Tigers are struggling to get into form at spring training. The result: a long list of injured players.

Kim Se-hyun, the Tigers’ top candidate for closer this season, returned to Korea only four days after spring training started as he wasn’t able to keep up with the team’s fitness training.

As the 2019 KBO season is starting a week earlier than usual, manager Kim Ki-tai scheduled practice games earlier this year. Kim Se-hyun wasn’t able to adjust to the earlier schedule and was sent down to the Tigers’ Futures League team’s training camp in Taiwan on Feb. 22.

Yoon Suk-min, who took the biggest pay cut in Korean baseball history ahead of this season, has been going back and forth between the mound and rehab for his shoulder since he returned from the United States in 2015.

After a disappointing 2018 season, picking up eight losses and 11 saves in 28 games with a 6.75 ERA, Yoon accepted a huge pay cut and started preparing for the season in January by training with Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Despite the head start with training, Yoon once again felt pain in his shoulder that led him to return home earlier than the rest of the team.

But it’s not only Yoon and Kim that had to head home early. Third baseman Lee Bum-ho and starting candidate Han Seung-hyuk also returned to Korea due to injuries. Lee suffered a left hamstring injury, while Han had pain in his right thigh.

Thanks to the injuries, the Tigers’ coaches have now called up their younger players to the spring training camp and are closely watching their performances.

“I’m satisfied that I get to watch the young players,” said manager Kim.

Although the injuries to the starting players may be a headache for the manager and coaches, for the younger players, it’s an opportunity.

The fight for third base is the most competitive. Choi Won-jun, who played as both infielder and outfielder last season, left a strong impression on manager Kim, but Ryu Seung-hyun, who recently received some tips from Yomiuri Giants manager Tatsunori Hara, is also seeking a shot at the position.

“I gained confidence in defense,” said Ryu. “I want to fulfill Lee Bum-ho’s absence at the season opener.”

Yet it’s not only Ryu and Choi who are looking to replace Lee: Kim Ju-hyung, who joined the camp late this year, also showed his potential by hitting a home run during a Tigers’ practice game.

The Tigers also hope to see a new face on the mound in the coming season. Kim Yun-dong has quickly proven himself as the Tigers’ potential closer. Throughout the 2018 season, Kim picked up seven wins, six losses, four saves and 18 holds with a 3.70 ERA in 64 games.

While Kim proved his potential last year, Koh Young-chang is making a name for himself at the Tigers’ spring training camp. Although Koh has only appeared in two games throughout his seven years in the KBO, he tossed scoreless innings in four practice games during training.

Right hander Moon Kyeong-chan also caught the attention of the sports commentators who visited the training site with his sharp curveball.

BY KIM HYO-KYUNG [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]