By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, March 25 (Yonhap) -- Professional baseball will open the 2013 season this weekend, and the nation's most popular sport should bring plenty of changes and drama over the ensuing seven months.
The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) will launch its 32nd season on Saturday, having added a new member to the league for the first time in 22 years.
The NC Dinos will play out of Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, as the ninth KBO team. They will finally take on the big boys after spending the 2012 season in the minors.
The eight incumbents from last year will open the season on Saturday, while the Dinos will play their first game next Tuesday at home.
At 2 p.m. this Tuesday, the two-time defending champions Samsung Lions will host the Doosan Bears in Daegu. The SK Wyverns will take on the LG Twins in Incheon. The Lotte Giants will face the Hanwha Eagles at home in Busan. Finally, it will be the Kia Tigers against the Nexen Heroes at the Tigers' home in Gwangju.
With an extra club, the KBO will have 576 games this year, compared to 532 in 2012. Each of the nine teams will play 128 games, whereas eight teams last year each played 133 games. Having the odd number of clubs means one team will be off on any given day throughout the season.
Teams will have as many as four days off in a row, and how they manage their bullpens and starting rotations before and after such an unusually long break is expected to be an important factor.
Despite the addition of the Dinos, the playoff structure hasn't changed. The regular season champion will earn the bye to the championship Korean Series. The No. 3 and No. 4 teams will meet in the opening round of the playoffs, and the winner will advance to the next round to play the No. 2-ranked club.
The Lions will try to become only the second KBO team to win at least three consecutive championships. The Haitai Tigers, now called the Kia Tigers, were the league champs from 1986 to 1989.
The Tigers will try to foil the bid. After ending in fifth place last season with a roster decimated by injuries, the Tigers showed some signs of things that might come this year by finishing first in the preseason.
The Gwangju-based team had the best team batting average with .299 and scored the league-high 69 runs in 11 preseason games, while also posting the second-best ERA with 2.66.
The Wyverns have played in six consecutive Korean Series, a KBO record, and won three titles over that stretch. With some injured pitchers set to miss the early part of the season, they will be in for a tough fight to keep their streak alive.
Baseball has long been the biggest draw among major sports leagues in South Korea, well ahead of football, volleyball and basketball in both attendance and TV ratings.
The KBO has enjoyed a meteoric rise in attendance in the past several seasons. Last year, the league broke its own single-season record for the fourth consecutive year with more than 7.15 million fans. The nine teams in 2013 have set out to attract about 7.54 million fans, an increase of about 5 percent from a year ago.
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