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By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, April 1 (Yonhap) -- Some ugly pitching and defense led to plenty of runs on the opening weekend of the top South Korean pro baseball league.
The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) launched its 32nd season last Saturday, with eight of the nine teams in action. The same teams played each other again on Sunday.
The first day yielded 54 runs scored, a league record for an opening day. There were three grand slams hit on that first day, also a KBO record.
The teams followed that up with 36 runs scored on Sunday. Three of the four victorious teams on both Saturday and Sunday came from behind to win.
These results may have been exciting, but as much as productive offense, sloppy relief pitching and fielding contributed to high-scoring games.
The two-game set between the Lotte Giants and the Hanwha Eagles served as a prime example.
The Giants won both of their home games in Busan in their final at-bats, by the identical scores of 6-5. The Eagles' pitchers played as big a part in these results as the Giants' offense, as they handed out 10 walks on Saturday and seven walks on Sunday.
On Saturday, after starter Denny Bautista left the game with a 4-1 lead for Hanwha in the sixth, three relief pitchers issued three walks and hit two batters, allowing the Giants to pull even at 4-4. Park Jong-yoon won the game with a sacrifice fly in the bottom ninth.
Kim Euong-yong, the Eagles' manager, lamented the pitchers' passive approach.
"I don't think our bullpen pitchers had confidence on the mound," he said. "I'd figured we could score around five runs and keep the opponents to four runs. We had it our way midway through the game but couldn't close it out."
On Sunday, the defense came undone for Hanwha. The team committed only one error on the score sheet, but made three fielding miscues in the sixth inning that didn't count as errors but that might have been even more costly.
The Eagles' catcher Han Seung-taek missed what should have been an easy double play. With the bases loaded, third baseman Oh Sun-jin grabbed a hard grounder and threw home to get the lead runner out, but Han inexplicably turned his body toward the second base and failed to throw to first.
On the next play, shortstop Lee Dae-soo, the 2011 Golden Glove winner, misjudged a pop-up and let it drop in no-man's land between left field and third base. It counted as a base hit, but allowed the Giants to tie things up at 2-2.
Later in the same inning, right fielder Kim Tae-wan bobbled the ball on a single and allowed a runner to score from second, making it 3-2 for Lotte. If Kim had handled the ball cleanly and thrown it home, he would have had a close play at the plate.
Given another life, the Giants went on to score two more runs off of the deflated Hanwha pitchers.
The Nexen Heroes wasted some impressive offensive production as they split their two games against the Kia Tigers. On Saturday, they went up 3-0 on the Tigers but ended up losing 10-9.
The two clubs exchanged leads four times. After the Tigers clawed back from 3-0 down to lead 6-4, the Heroes tagged on five runs in the top seventh to lead 9-6.
Just when the victory appeared to be sealed for the Heroes, their relief pitchers came unraveled. After getting two outs in the bottom seventh, Han Hyun-hee hit Cha Il-mok. The next pitcher, Moon Sung-hyun, promptly gave up three singles and two walks without retiring a batter. When the dust settled, the Tigers were up 10-9, which stood as the final score.
The Heroes' bullpen survived another scare on Sunday. The bats staked the team to a 6-1 lead, before the Tigers got three runs back in the bottom seventh. Nexen's Kim Young-min, relieving starter Kim Byung-hyun, gave up a two-run homer to pinch hitter Shin Jong-gil.
Kim Young-min walked the next batter and was relieved by Lee Bo-geun, who then gave up a run-scoring double to Lee Yong-kyu.
The Heroes held on to win 6-4 Sunday, though, and Yeom Kyung-yup, the team's manager, said he would gladly take the first win of the season any way he could.
"We played two very tough games in a row, and I saw a lot of promise in our team," he said. "It would have been a big blow if we'd lost on Sunday, too. We overcame some difficult moments and this is a major boost to our confidence."
Even the SK Wyverns, long known for their lockdown bullpen, lost a late lead on Saturday at home against the LG Twins. With a 4-2 lead in the eighth, Lee Jae-young, SK's second pitcher after Jo-Jo Reyes, walked in a run to make it 4-3 and then served up a grand slam against Jeong Seong-hoon. The Wyverns ended up losing 7-4.
The Wyverns, who have played in a league-record six Korean Series finals in a row, are missing two key bullpen pitchers from last year. Closer Jung Woo-ram is now doing his mandatory military service, and setup man Park Hee-soo is out indefinitely with an elbow injury. The patchwork bullpen without the two could be in for a long season.
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