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Pitchers prove crucial as battle for KBO pennant heats up

Sept 29,2017
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[JOONGANG PHOTO]
When it comes to a nail-biter of a finish, the 2017 Korea Baseball Organization season has not failed to disappoint. As the regular season enters its final weekend it is still not clear if the Kia Tigers or the Doosan Bears will take home the pennant. The Tigers have managed to reclaim their position at the top of the table this week, but the Bears, who are also the reigning champions, are still nipping at their heels.

In baseball, success nearly always comes down to the strength of the pitchers. The KBO is no different, and the Tigers and the Bears rely heavily on their ace pitchers, Yang Hyun-jong and Dustin Nippert. But as the season entered its final month, both Yang and Nippert started to struggle. With only a handful of games to go, both teams will be hoping that the players are back at peak performance going into the postseason.

Nippert, however, is starting to worry fans. Over the seven seasons he has played in the KBO, Nippert has picked up more wins than any other pitcher, at 94. Though his record this season - 14 wins, eight losses with a 4.20 ERA - doesn’t look too bad on paper, it is a remarkable step down compared to last season, when he recorded 22 wins, three losses and a 2.95 ERA.

During September Nippert hit rock bottom. Starting from the game against the Tigers on Aug. 31, Nippert has given up a total of 23 runs, seven of them home runs, in the five games that he has played in.

He was able to pick up a win during the Bears’ game against the Samsung Lions on Sept. 17, but it was still a disappointing result as he gave up six hits and three runs in five innings. In five consecutive games, Nippert has failed to make quality starts, and his ERA has skyrocketed to 9.78 for the month.

Nippert, who was the KBO’s first foreign player to surpass $2 million in annual salary, had an outstanding 2016 season with a winning percentage of 0.880. He played a significant role in the Bears’ success in winning the regular and postseason last year and picked up the league MVP award.

While the Bears’ ace pitcher is underperforming, the Tigers’ Yang just picked up his 19th win of the season. Yang, who exceeded 200 innings for the first time last season, had to start his season earlier than others to represent Korea at the World Baseball Classic.

But Yang also slowed down this month. Before the game against the LG Twins on Tuesday, Yang had only managed one win and one loss in the last four games with a 4.68 ERA. While pitching in a total of 25 innings, Yang gave up 18 runs.

“He’s done a great job throughout the season,” Kim Ki-tae, manager of the Tigers said. “Slump is not the right word for him.”

Kim’s statement proved right, as Yang picked up his 19th win of the season on Tuesday, giving up five hits and no runs while pitching seven innings. The Tigers were in desperate need of Yang’s return to form, as their batting lineup has also struggled this month. Making things worse, the Tigers’ bullpen, which has been their biggest weakness all season, hasn’t gotten any better.

Yang himself has a reason to win the remaining games, as he is on the edge of becoming the first domestic pitcher in 22 years to pick up 20 wins in a single season. He has one more start, which he will have to win, against the KT Wiz over the weekend.

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