SEOUL, Sept. 19 (Yonhap) — The two teams vying for the final postseason berth in South Korean baseball while going in opposite directions will square off for a crucial series this week.
The Kia Tigers are occupying the fifth and final playoff spot in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) but barely. They have dropped seven games in a row and now hold just a 1.5-game lead over the NC Dinos.
The Tigers have the worst record in the league in September at 5-11, which has dropped them to 62-67-1 (wins-losses-ties) for the season.
The Dinos, on the other hand, have gone 10-6 for September, the second-best mark in the KBO. They are 58-66-3, with three games in hand on the Tigers.
Starting Thursday, the Dinos will host the Tigers at Changwon NC Park in the southeastern city of Changwon, for the biggest three-game series of the season for both teams. The Tigers have won seven out of 13 meetings between them so far.
Given the way these two clubs have played of late, though, the Dinos may well find themselves in fifth place even before meeting the Tigers.
The Dinos will open the week with two games against the ninth-place Doosan Bears in Seoul on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Tigers will host the second-place LG Twins for two games before the Dinos series.
The late season surge for the Dinos has been one of the most surprising developments this season. They fired their manager Lee Dong-wook on May 11, when they were in last place at 9-24. Teams in that deep of a hole usually don’t even sniff a playoff spot. But under interim skipper Kang In-kwon, the Dinos have gone 49-42-3, the fifth-best record in the KBO in that span, to jump into the thick of the race.
And since the All-Star break, the Dinos have the second-best record in the league at 26-17-1.
Veteran catcher Yang Eui-ji has been swinging the Dinos’ hottest bat in the second half. The KBO’s Player of the Month for August is tied for the league lead with 11 home runs and 42 RBIs following the All-Star break.
Infielder No Jin-hyuk and outfielder Park Kun-woo are among the second-half leaders in batting average and hits. Yang and No are first and second in on-base plus slugging percentage in the league in the second half, respectively.
No team has scored more than the Dinos since the midseason break.
Their pitchers have done their part, too. Left-hander Koo Chang-mo, finally healthy after missing all of 2021 and half of 2020 seasons, is 9-4 with a 1.85 ERA in 16 starts. He has shaken off some shaky outings and has limited opponents to just one run on five hits over his two recent starts, covering 13 innings.
Right-hander Drew Rucinski’s September woes have to be a bit concerning, though. He has been tagged for 13 earned runs in 16 1/3 innings across three September starts. His ERA has gone up from 2.61 to 3.04 in that stretch, the first time all season that his ERA has gone over 3.00.
Rucinski has been quite the hard luck pitcher this year, and his 8-11 record isn’t indicative of his performance, his recent struggles notwithstanding.
Rucinski pitched at least six innings and gave up zero or one earned run in 15 of his 28 starts so far. But his record in those 15 outings has been just 4-4 with seven no decisions.
Elsewhere in the KBO, the race for the regular season crown is far from over. The SSG Landers are trying to become the first team in league history to go wire-to-wire for the pennant, but they are stumbling toward the finish line.
They hold a 3.5-game lead over the LG Twins. The two rivals will meet for the final time in the regular season Sunday at the Landers’ home in Incheon, just west of Seoul.
The Twins have five games in hand on the Landers. They have played 126 games through Sunday, the fewest in the KBO so far.