Twenty fours before the 2017 All-Star event got under way at Daegu’s Samsung Lions Park, the NC Dinos exited Champions Field with heads bowed. The Kia Tigers had just wrapped up a dominating sweep, recording a comfortable 7-1 win to stretch their lead at the top to a seemingly unassailable eight games*.
Wednesday’s collapse was the most harrowing for the Dinos, and their league leading bullpen. They led 6-2 in the 6th and held a 2-run lead into the bottom of the 9th. For pitchers Kim Jin-sung, Won Jong-hyun and Im Chang-min, leads like that usually mean game over.
Kim and Won both allowed runners to score to narrow the gap, but the game seemed to be under control when Im faced a two out, one on situation in the 9th. For a guy with 21 saves and a 1-0 record this year, that looked to be enough. But Im followed a single with a 2 RBI double to tie the game, before a first pitch left-field home run from Choi Hyeong-woo in the 10th ended the game.
The Tigers, meanwhile, went into the break buoyed by a big lead at the summit and plenty of players picked by fans and fellow pros to play in the All-Star.
In hindsight, Gwangju fans clogging the voting sites may have spectacularly backfired on their team.
The Dinos returned from the mini break with a sweep over Hanwha Eagles in Cheongju. If the rest of the league wasn’t paying too much attention, they certainly were at the weekend when the 3rd placed Wyverns, known nationally as the Home Run Team, were thrashed 26-9 over 3 tiring days in Masan.
The most pleasing aspect of the week for the Dinos was how all of their starting pitchers recorded wins and normal service was resumed in the pen.
But scratch a little deeper, you’ll notice their pitching rotation was severely tested, with all of their bigger names failing to get through five innings of baseball.
Lee Jae-hak, out of form all season, recorded 2 wins after tossing 10.1 innings, to bring his record to 5-4 in 2017. He’s still well short of his best, but it is worth noting Tuesday’s win was his first since early June.
Jeff Manship, who won his first 7 games as a Dino, returned after 2 months out against Kia, and then registered his 8th win on Wednesday against Hanwha. Manship allowed 7 hits, 1 walk and 1 HBP to score 3 runs in his 5 inning spell.
Eric Hacker advanced to 9-3 for the year and the third best WHIP (1.16) but he, too, got beaten up a little by the Wynerns. During his 5.1 innings, the Wyverns scored 5 runs from 13 hits, two of which were home runs. In none of his previous 16 games this season had Hacker allowed double-digit hits.
Ku Chang-mo also didn’t make it as far as the 6th inning, but immense value was taken in his 5 scoreless innings after getting hammered on his last two appearances. Jang Hyeon-sik was the only Dinos pitcher to complete 6 innings (2 earned runs from 4 hits and 3 walks in his 115 pitch performance).
Won Jong-hyun was the league’s only pitcher to play in 4 games last week. Won pitched 6.1 innings (2 earned runs) as part of a bullpen effort that looked pretty stable apart from Wednesday’s ordeal in Cheongju.
With the bat, however, the Dinos terrified both teams they played last week. They batted a league best .361 with an OPS of 1.042 (way out in front).
Xavier Scruggs returned from a month on the sidelines to bat around .400 with 3 home runs, 3 doubles, 14 RBIS and 8 runs scored. The only other player to record double digit RBIS during the week was his teammate Kwon Hee-Dong (10).
Park Min-woo batted closer to .600, scoring 9 runs in 5 games. His on base percentage was the best in the league last week, at .640.
Lee Ho-jun, aged 41 and still performing at the highest level, also had a great week. The former Tiger and Wynern notched up 10 hits from his 25 at bats to go with his 1 home run, 4 walks and 8 RBIS.
The website Yagu Chingu had 5 Dinos in their team of the week.
Despite two away stands, this week represents another glorious opportunity to close the gap on the Tigers. Kia have a tough schedule, facing SK Wyverns (home) and Doosan Bears (away). NC, meanwhile, must navigate considerably less choppy waters against Samsung Lions and kt wizz. Their record against both is encouraging – 4-1-1 v Samsung and 7-2 v kt – with Manship down to start Tuesday’s game provided the rain stays away.
Amazingly, their 6 games the following week are against Hanwha Eagles and Samsung, again. As they look to motor clear of 3rd and hunt down Kia, the Dinos will play their next 12 games against the bottom 3 teams in the league. Absolutely beautiful, if you support the Dinos.
*: from the opening paragraph. Many Tigers fans thought the 8 game lead was too much for NC to haul back in.
Main image: Yonhap News Agency. Photo of Xavier Scruggs.