The KT Wizards, who finished the regular season in second place, will enter the postseason after a three-week rebuild.
KT, led by head coach Lee Kang-cheol, held a team training session at KT Wiz Park in Suwon on the 29th. The players took the field one by one around 2:30 p.m. and spent over an hour training and meeting to prepare for the first game.
KT, which wrapped up its regular season schedule with a home finale against the Doosan Bears on Oct. 10, took its time preparing for the postseason. It was a welcome respite for the players, who were somewhat exhausted from the rigorous schedule, playing three doubleheaders since mid-September.
Well-rested, KT was eager to win the first game. Leading the lineup is pitcher William “Ace” Cuevas. This season, Cuevas is undefeated with 12 wins and a 2.60 ERA in 18 games and 114⅓ innings pitched.
After joining the team in mid-June as a replacement for Bo Schuler, Cuevas gradually improved his form and made five consecutive quality starts, from last month’s game against the Suwon SSG Landers on June 10 to the Suwon Hanwha Eagles on October 8. In his one start against the NC this season, on June 30 (Suwon), he pitched six innings and allowed two runs on five hits with one walk and four strikeouts.
His opponents are no slouches either. Eric Peddy, who had a 20-200 record in the regular season, will take the mound. Although he hasn’t pitched as well as he has against other teams this season, going 1-0 with a 2.65 ERA in 17 innings in three appearances against KT, he doesn’t have any physical concerns as he didn’t pitch in the wild-card decider and semi-playoffs.
“We have to do the same thing (against Pedi),” Lee told reporters after practice, “and if we fight well in the early innings, we should be able to go to the end of the game because (the bullpen) is fine,” he said ahead of the playoffs against the NC Dinos.
With a solid starting pitching staff, KT will have just as many reliable starters as Cuevas on the mound in Games 2 and 3. Wes Benjamin and Ko Young-pyo will start Game 2 and Game 3, respectively. If it goes to Game 4, Yeo will likely start. “If it’s not too crowded, we might go with a four-man rotation, but we’ll have to see how the series goes and how many pitches the pitchers throw,” Lee said.
Uhm Sang-baek, who has recovered from an injury, will also be waiting in the bullpen. After being diagnosed with a microfracture in his ribs on August 22 against the Suwon KIA Tigers, he was removed from the lineup and ended his regular season prematurely. However, he focused on his recovery, waiting for the bone to heal, and improved his physical condition to the point where he could train normally.
“It wasn’t good in the Blue-White game, but his performance in the NC (2-1 with a 2.45 ERA in 7⅓ innings in two games this season) is good,” Lee said, adding that “the plan (to use him in the middle) hasn’t changed.” He expressed his expectations for Uhm.
The series will also feature a matchup of young bullpen pitchers. “It might be a good thing that NC has organized its staff to a certain extent,” said Lee Kang-cheol. “They went 8-8 last year and were 10-6 this year, so I don’t think the players are thinking about anything in particular about their opponent being NC.”
Compared to the pitching staff, the outfield hasn’t fared as well. This is because they had a major setback even before the series started. Kang Baek-ho, the team’s leading hitter, was ruled out of the playoffs due to injury.
On April 26, Kang Baek-ho, who played in his own game against Cheongbaeik, felt pain in his side while swinging in the second inning and immediately left the game. A medical examination revealed a right adductor muscle injury.
Given that the Korean Series starts on the 7th of next month, it seems unlikely that Kang will be back on the field before the end of the postseason. The loss of Kang Baek-ho, who was a big part of the offense and defense, is unfortunate for both the player and the team.
However, the coaching staff can’t force him to play, so they had to make some changes to the roster. There are eight infielders and seven outfielders.
After debating between outfielders Ahn Chi-young and Jeong Jun-young, KT decided to include Jeong Jun-young in the playoff roster. Lee said, “(Kang Baek-ho) is done for the season. (If one of (Moon) Sang-chul and (Lee) Ho-yeon starts, the other one will pinch-hit. (Kim) Min-hyuk will also pinch-hit.” “I thought a lot about Ahn Chi-young and Jeong Jun-young. When I thought about defense and baserunning, I decided that Jung Jun-young was better. I’m very sorry (for Ahn Chi-young).”
The three-catcher system also affected the roster. Lee Kang-cheol said, “I was worried about that. If (Jang) Sung-woo went down in the seventh or eighth inning and we had to use a pinch-hitter, I felt uneasy with just one catcher, so I tried to play it safe. In the worst case scenario, (Lee) Sang-ho could also go to the outfield.”
There’s another reason for including eight infielders: the physical strength of “veteran” Park Kyung-soo. “It’s not easy for (Park) to start three games in a row,” Lee said. That’s why I included (Oh) Yoon Seok-yi. He can be used as a starter,” Lee explained, adding, “(Lee) Ho-yeon has some pressure on the defense side, but we considered that the beginning of the game is a defensive battle.”
“I think the team that does a good job with the basics on defense will win, and that’s how it was in the semifinals,” Lee said. “Actually, I think the most important thing is who goes crazy during the week. I think it depends on who’s in good shape and who’s not,” he emphasized.
“We’re basically trying to make a move. We’ve got some good starters out there, so we’re going to go with the ones that can score runs if we get a chance.” “I think it’s important to score first. We saw in Game 1 of the semifinals that the first inning is really important, and overall this postseason we’ve scored a lot of runs in the fourth or fifth inning, and if you can get through that and get a lead, you have a better chance of winning. We’ve been thinking about the No. 8 hitter, too, because we’ve had a lot of chances with the No. 3 through No. 8 hitters.”