NC to fall baseball for first time in 3 years…but veteran closers struggle [MK Focus]

The NC Dinos received their first postseason invitation in three years. However, the struggles of closer Lee Yong-chan have raised concerns about their future.

NC won 8-4 at home against the LG Twins in the 2023 KBO Baseball Playoffs at Changwon NC Park on March 13.

With the win, NC, which finished fourth with 74 wins, two draws, and 65 losses, half a game behind the third-place SSG Landers (74 wins, three draws, and 64 losses), secured at least fifth place and punched its ticket to fall baseball regardless of the outcome of the remaining games. It will be the first time in three years that NC will appear in the postseason since 2020, when they won their first overall title.스포츠토토

NC’s Lee Yong-chan was unable to show a stable performance against LG in Changwon on March 13. Photo by Kim Jae-hyun

Stable closer Lee Yong-chan is essential for NC. Photo by Kim Young-gu
Amidst all the good news NC wanted to hear from the game, including a strong performance by starting pitcher Tanner Tully (6 innings, 3 hits, 1 run, 3 walks, 1 strikeout, 111 total pitches), who picked up his fifth win of the season, and Kim Sung-wook, who led the offense with a 2-for-4 performance and 3 RBIs, there was also bad news. That was the struggles of closer Lee Yong-chan.

A native of Jangchung-go, who was drafted by the Doosan Bears in 2007, Yong-chan is a veteran right-hander with a heavy four-seam fastball. He has been in an NC uniform since the 2021 season, and through last year, he had compiled a 57-56 record, 128 saves, seven shutouts, and a 3.70 ERA in 440 career games (102 starts, 937.1 innings).

This season, Yong-chan has continued to excel. After struggling in April with a 6.35 ERA, he rebounded in May with a 2.25 ERA. He faltered again in June with a 4.91 ERA, but has since stabilized somewhat. Before the Changwon LG Electronics game on the 13th, he had a 4-4 record, 28 saves, and a 3.51 ERA in 57 appearances this year.

However, there was definitely an element of anxiety. As the battle for the top spot intensified, Yong-chan’s appearances became more frequent in October. Including this game against LG, he took the mound six times in October alone. Given his age of 34, he could have felt the physical strain. That’s why he was shaky against SSG on October 8, giving up three runs on two hits, one walk, and one home run in 0.2 innings.

In the top of the eighth inning with NC leading 8-5, Lee Yong-chan, who relieved Lim Jung-ho with two outs, walked Choi Hang and then gave up a single to Kim Kang-min in right-center field. With runners on first and third, he had to hang his head as he gave up a three-run homer to Oh Tae-gon over the left field fence.

Luckily, Yong-chan seemed to bounce back on the 10th with a scoreless inning of relief against the Changwon Hanwha Eagles. However, he was unable to settle down on this day as well. In the top of the ninth inning, with NC leading 8-1, he gave up back-to-back singles to Austin Dean and Son Ho-young, and a walk to Jung Ju-hyun, leaving the bases loaded.

Lee couldn’t find a way out of the jam after that. The next batter, Kim Bum-seok, hit an exquisite curveball toward third base to put two runners on base. With two outs, Jeon Jun-ho was hit by a pitch. The call was overturned, and Jeong was able to get the first out of the inning by catching Jeong Ju-hyun at third base, but he had to watch as Kim Bum-seok crossed the plate in the meantime. Luckily, Seo struck out Gun-chang to prevent any further damage, but Yong-chan’s record remained at three runs on three hits, one walk, and one strikeout in one inning. His ERA soared to 3.90.

Despite Yong-chan’s poor performance, NC still managed to punch their ticket to the postseason. However, the schedule ahead is more important. As mentioned earlier, NC, currently in fourth place, is in a tight race for third place with SSG in third and the Doosan Bears in fifth (73 wins, 2 draws, 65 losses). If they can finish the regular season in third place, they can start fall baseball in the semi-playoffs. This could have a huge impact on NC’s final record for the year. There are only three games left in the schedule to decide this.

With every game expected to be a hard-fought battle, the importance of a reliable closer who can come in at the end of the game and save the day cannot be overstated. This will be essential for the NC in the postseason as well. It will be interesting to see if veteran Lee Yong-chan can rebound and lead NC to greater heights.

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