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The KBO’s top veterans start to warm up in May, mostly

May 30,2019
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From left: Choi Hyoung-woo, Lee Dae-ho, Park Yong-taik and Park Han-yi [JOONGANG PHOTO]
The warmer weather seems to be agreeing with the KBO’s top veterans, who are finally starting to prove why they’re paid the big bucks.

The league’s veterans seemed to be struggling to get used to the KBO’s new baseball this season, especially those who play for clubs in the bottom half of the table. But now that it’s been more than two months since the 2019 season started, the veterans are leading their struggling clubs to climb back up the leaderboard.

During the third week of May, from May 21 to 26, Kia Tigers’ slugger Choi Hyoung-woo has been on an impressive streak, with 11 hits in 21 at bats. Such hits were good enough to put Choi at the top of the league’s weekly batting average, at .524. In addition to his batting averages, throughout six games, Choi also managed to hit three home runs and get seven RBIs.

Of the Tigers batters, Choi is the highest-paid player, with his annual income at 1.5 billion won ($1.2 million) this year. However, Choi wasn’t able to live up to his big payment as he started the season with a .241 batting average in March and a .275 batting average in April.

During this time, the Tigers dropped to the bottom of the league’s regular season standing and their manager, Kim Ki-tai, who led the Tigers to win both the regular season and the Korean Series in 2017, resigned on May 16.

Once Park Heung-sik took over as Tigers’ interim manager, he told the players, “Veterans shouldn’t be lazy. If they don’t look like they’re working hard, I won’t use them.”

Perhaps thanks to Park’s motivation, Choi quickly got back to his old form and a big performance last week allowed his batting average to jump to .325 for May.

“We’ve had big things happening within the team, but I’m trying not to let that disturb me and just focus [on my game],” Choi said. “As I work hard, I can feel that I’m getting better.”

His improvement in May also boosted Choi’s statistics for the season - he now has a .293 batting average with eight home runs and 37 RBIs as of Wednesday 6 p.m. But Choi’s performance hasn’t allowed the Tigers to make an improvement in the league’s standing. In the past 10 games, as of Wednesday, the Tigers have won eight while only losing two, but are still ranked toward the bottom of the table.

The Giants, too, are facing trouble this season, but veteran Lee Dae-ho is back on form. Among the Giants’ batters that have fulfilled the innings requirement, Lee is the only player to have a batting average above .300.

Just like Choi, Lee also had a slow start to the season. Lee’s was even more disappointing as he is the highest-paid player in the KBO, receiving 2.5 billion won this season.

In Lee’s first 30 games, he had a .279 batting average while only hitting two home runs. But this month, Lee finally adjusted to the new baseball. In May, Lee has a .400 batting average, while hitting seven home runs and adding 29 RBIs, as of Tuesday’s game.

As of Wednesday 6 p.m., Lee has a .335 batting average, good enough to be ranked fourth in the league, and has been leading the league in RBIs, at 54.

Despite Lee’s performance, the Giants aren’t looking too good due to the club’s severe weakness on the mound. This led the Giants to drop to the bottom of the standing.

While the two players are finally getting back in shape, LG Twins’ veteran Park Yong-taik is struggling to make an appearance in the KBO this season. Park, who signed a two-year contract with the Twins at 2.5 billion won after the 2018 season, was excluded from the Twins roster on April 3 due to elbow pain. Although he quickly returned on April 17, he hasn’t been helping much as he only has a .143 batting average.

Park may not be a slugger, but he has been a consistent batter, keeping his batting average above .300 for 10 consecutive seasons from 2009. But 2019 is a different story as he only had a .223 batting average after the first 38 games.

Park Han-yi, the oldest player in the league, had to conclude his career early due to a drinking-and-driving incident. Park Han-yi’s abrupt retirement was a big disappointment for fans as he had only played for the Samsung Lions throughout his 19 years in the KBO and a day before the incident on Sunday he hit a walk-off double to lead the Lions to a come-from-behind victory against the Kiwoom Heroes.

This season, Park had a .257 batting average with two home runs and 13 RBIs in 30 games.

BY PARK SO-YOUNG, KANG YOO-RIM [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]