Familiar face back on top with high-scoring clubs in hot pursuit over first half of KBO season

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, July 17 (Yonhap) -- It's deja vu all over again in the top South Korean baseball league as it enters the All-Star break, with a familiar face sitting pretty in first place despite recent hiccups.

The Samsung Lions, the three-time defending champs of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), are at the top of the standings in the nine-team league at 49 wins, 27 losses and two draws. They're 3.5 games ahead of the Nexen Heroes, despite losing the final four games of the first half.

The Heroes, who made their first postseason appearance last season, are on track to return to the playoffs this year at 48-33-1.

The NC Dinos, playing in only their second KBO season, are in third place, only half a game back of the Heroes at 46-32. After surprisingly finishing in seventh place in their inaugural season in 2013, the Dinos have been the darling of the KBO so far, racing to the top in the early going and falling below third just once after April 2.

The top three have put some distance between themselves and the mid-tier clubs. The Lotte Giants, hoping to return to the postseason after missing out last year, are in fourth place at 40-38-1, six games behind the Dinos.

The KBO awards playoff spots to the top four regular season teams. If the season ended today, the Doosan Bears, the runner-up last year to the Lions, would be on the outside looking in. They are underachieving at 38-42, three games out of fourth place.

The Kia Tigers are making a run at the playoffs. They were the biggest disappointment last season, going from a trendy preseason contender to an also-ran that finished with a worse record than the expansion Dinos. This year, they are half a game back of the Bears at 38-43, with a fighting chance to make the playoffs.

The LG Twins finished second in the regular season a year ago and entered the 2014 season with hopes for better things to come. Instead, their 4-13-1 start cost manager Kim Ki-tai his job. Bench coach Cho Kye-hyun served as an interim manager for 16 games before former pitcher Yang Sang-moon left TV booth to become the new manager. Yang has righted the ship somewhat, as the Twins have gone 25-21 under him to keep their fading postseason hopes alive. They are now at 35-44-1.

The two bottom feeders might as well start making vacation plans after October. The SK Wyverns, a proud franchise only two years removed from their last appearance in the Korean Series, are a team in disarray at 34-49. One of their high-profile offseason acquisitions, former big league bat Luke Scott, was waived Wednesday after having a heated exchange with manager Lee Man-soo.

Scott complained that the Wyverns weren't respecting his own way of rehabbing from injuries and forced him to follow the team's orders. The Wyverns said they released the veteran for insubordination.

The Hanwha Eagles are merely being themselves this year, as helpless and hopeless as ever on their way to finishing last for the third straight season. At 28-48-1, the Eagles are 11 games out of the final playoff spot.

The Lions have a steady starting rotation led by the second-year foreign pitcher Rick van den Hurk, who has 10 wins and a 3.28 ERA, both best among the team's starters. Jang Won-sam and Yun Sung-hwan have combined for 17 wins and have each posted an ERA of under 4.00, no mean feat in this year of massive offensive production.

On offense, veteran Lee Seung-yuop, the KBO's career home run leader, has bounced back from the worst season of his illustrious career in 2013. The 37-year-old has hit 19 homers, already six more than all of last season and has driven in 69 runs, only nine shy of his total last season. After batting a career-low .253 in 2013, Lee's batting .293 this year.

The Dinos have the luxury of three foreign starting pitchers, and Charlie Shirek, Eric Hacker and Thad Weber have combined for 21 of the team's 46 victories so far. Shirek also tossed a no-hitter in June and is second in the KBO with a 2.92 ERA.

The 2013 Rookie of the Year, Lee Jae-hak, has chipped in nine wins of his own for the staff, which boasts the league-best team ERA of 4.01, but the firewagon offense has also carried the Dinos.

On six occasions, a team has scored at least 20 runs in a game this year, and the Dinos have put up 20 or more runs on the board twice. Na Sung-bum, third behind his teammate Lee in the Rookie of the Year balloting in 2013, has set career highs with 20 homers and 65 RBIs while batting a robust .353. Eric Thames, in his first KBO season, leads the Dinos with 21 home runs and 71 RBIs.

The Heroes wouldn't have been in playoff contention if not for their bats, which have produced the most homers and most runs in the league so far.

Their veteran right-hander, Brandon Knight, was waived in May and aside from Andy Van Hekken, the league leader with 13 wins and a 2.81 ERA, no one else has more than four victories. Their closer, Son Seung-lak, has had an adventurous year, his league-leading 22 saves accompanied by an unsightly 5.08 ERA.

First baseman Park Byung-ho could win his third straight MVP award. He is already up to 30 homers for the year, only seven shy of the career-high mark he set in 2013, while slugging and getting on base at higher rates than last year.

His teammate, Kang Jung-ho, may present the biggest threat to Park's MVP chances. The hard-hitting shortstop leads the KBO with 73 RBIs and has hit a career-high 26 long balls. He's also batting .341, well ahead of Park's .286 average. Kang is also the only KBO player with a slugging percentage of above .700, sitting at a Barry Bondsian .714.

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