SEOUL, They were dead even in their 16 regular season meetings, and only one game separated them in the standings.
On Thursday, the NC Dinos and the Doosan Bears will square off to start the 2023 Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) postseason, with another potential game looming Friday.
The Dinos finished the regular season in fourth place at 75-67-2 (wins-losses-ties), while the Bears claimed fifth place at 74-68-2. They will meet in the wild card round, with the first game set at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Dinos home, Changwon NC Park in the southeastern town of Changwon.
The Dinos will be playing in the postseason for the first time since capturing their first-ever Korean Series title in 2020. The Bears missed the postseason in 2022 after playing in every Korean Series from 2015 to 2021, and now they're back in the dance.
In this file photo from Sept. 13, 2023, NC Dinos starter Tanner Tully pitches against the KT Wiz during a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Changwon NC Park in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province
By virtue of being the higher seed, the Dinos will have two cracks at getting a win or a tie to advance to the next phase. The Bears, on the other hand, must win two straight games, both in Changwon, to move on to the next round.
Since the wild card round was introduced in 2015, no fifth seed has made it to the next postseason series.
The Bears will try to become the first No. 5 seed to pull off the upset, and they just may have the edge in starting pitching to make it happen.
Doosan Bears starter Gwak Been pitches against the Kia Tigers during a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul on Oct. 13, 2023, in this photo provided by the Bears.
The Dinos used their top starter, the Triple Crown winner Erick Fedde, on Monday against the Kia Tigers, hoping to lock down the No. 3 seed with a win. Fedde pitched 5 2/3 shutout innings, but the Dinos still lost the game 4-2. They also dropped Tuesday's game 7-1 to drop to fourth place, and now Fedde won't be available for the wild card round.
American left-hander Tanner Tully, who joined the Dinos in August, will start Thursday. He faced the Bears once in the regular season, holding them to three runs -- one earned -- over six innings for his first KBO victory on Aug. 20. He was 5-2 with a 2.92 ERA in 11 starts overall.
Yang Eui-ji of the Doosan Bears hits a three-run home run against the NC Dinos during a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul on Oct. 12, 2023
The Bears clinched fifth place Monday and saved their best arms for the wild card games. They will send homegrown right-hander Gwak Been to start Thursday. Gwak went 12-7 with a 2.90 ERA this season and was 0-1 with a 3.07 ERA in three starts against the Dinos.
Should the Bears win Thursday, the teams will go at it again Friday. The Bears will have left-hander Brandon Waddell lined up against Song Myung-gi for the Dinos.
And the Bears should have an edge there. Waddell went 11-3 with a 2.49 ERA in 18 starts after joining the Bears in June for his second tour of duty. He didn't face the Dinos this year.
In this file photo from Sept. 13, 2023, Son Ah-seop of the NC Dinos hits a single against the KT Wiz during a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Changwon NC Park in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province
Song, who split his time between the rotation and the bullpen, went 4-9 with an underwhelming 4.83 ERA in 35 appearances. In six games against the Bears, Song had a 0-1 record and a 3.97 ERA.
In the regular season, the Dinos were a more productive offensive team than the Bears, and they also had a slight edge in pitching numbers. But that edge will be negated by the absence of Fedde in the wild card games.
On offense, Dinos outfielder Son Ah-seop, the regular season batting champion, hit .338 against the Bears in 16 games this year. For the Bears, veteran shortstop Kim Jae-ho had three of his 10 homers this season against the Dinos.
But the central figure in the series will be Bears catcher Yang Eui-ji, who has lifted both teams to Korean Series titles.
In this file photo from July 4, 2023, NC Dinos manager Kang In-kwon speaks to reporters before a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game against the Kiwoom Heroes at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul
Yang was drafted by the Bears in 2005 and played for them until 2018. In 2016, the Bears swept the Dinos in the Korean Series, and Yang was voted the MVP of the championship round.
Yang signed with the Dinos as a free agent before the 2019 season and guided them to their first Korean Series crown in 2020. Yang was also named the Korean Series MVP that year, making him the first and so far the only player to have won Korean Series MVP awards for two clubs.
The managerial matchup features two postseason debutants.
Dinos skipper Kang In-kwon first took the reins as an interim boss last year before being elevated to the full-time post before this season. He has led them to the postseason despite losing talented but injury-prone starter Koo Chang-mo to another bout of arm problems.
Kang's counterpart, Lee Seung-yuop, skipped a coaching apprenticeship and jumped right into managing, after spending the past several years of his post-retirement days in broadcasting. Before the season, the Bears were seen as a team stuck in the mushy middle, due to an aging core and a group of young prospects deemed not quite ready for the big stage. But Lee, the KBO's career home run leader, coaxed enough out of this group to even challenge for the No. 3 seed before settling for fifth place.
Source: Yonhap News Agency