SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MAY 19: Pitcher Won Jong-Hyan # 46 of NC Dinos pitches in the bottom of the ninth inning during the KBO League game between NC Dinos and Doosan Bears at the Jamsil Baseball Stadium on May 19, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea.
(Photo by Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images)

The NC Dinos’ bullpen is sometimes shaky, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s not the worst problem to have.

The NC Dinos have one of the better bullpens in the Korean Baseball Organization. That’s what they say on the ESPN broadcast, anyway, and sure enough, the Dinos have several relievers who’ve been spectacular so far.

Jong-hyeon Won, the closer, has allowed only a single run in seven appearances; Jin-woo Park, one run in nine; Jae-Hwan Bae, two runs in eight. They say that the pitching in KBO bullpens is a lot worse than the starting rotations, but so far, the Dinos pen hasn’t been a weakness.

But I don’t buy it. Not for a second. I’ve never really believed in a bullpen, and I’m not about to start now. Trust a middle reliever? After the things I’ve been through? Surely, you jest.

It seems like a law of science that it’s impossible for baseball fans to trust their bullpens, and I’m no exception. The Dinos’ bullpen makes me sweat and grit my teeth, even when they put a solid pitcher on the mound. And sometimes they don’t.

The Dinos have one pitcher, Sung-moo Hong, who even after a single appearance reminds me of an amalgamation of all the bad relievers I suffered as a child. He’s Aaron Heilman and Scott Schoeneweis and Guillermo Mota, thrown together in a face-palming cocktail of uncertainty and hanging breaking balls. I wouldn’t trust Sung-moo Hong with a water gun, let alone a one-run lead.

That’s hyperbolic, of course, based on a single appearance. Maybe he’ll turn it around next time out. But it’ll be a while before Hong’s name inspires anything but stress.

Hong didn’t pitch in Sunday morning’s game against the Hanwha Eagles. In fact, the bullpen was pretty good. Starter Mike Wright left after six innings, and the pen gave up one run the rest of the way. But it was never a sure thing. Even when things were calm and the bases were empty, it was obvious that the tying run might be only a few batters away, and Dinos’ relievers sometimes seemed eager to put those few batters on base.

Wright, actually, looked brilliant at the start: he was perfect through four innings, and his running two-seamer was freezing one Hanwha lefty after another. The Dinos scored three runs in the fourth; after a Myung-ki Lee RBI single, Sung-bum Na crashed a double off the center-field fence, and two more runs came home. It looked like Wright was cruising, and the Dinos’ offense was just heating up. Maybe this would be an easy win.

But in the sixth, Wright walked two batters in a row. He was obviously getting tired, and the next batter, Yong-kyu Lee, rocketed a monstrous home run that hit the right-field foul pole and gave the Eagles the lead. Wright left after the sixth, and the Dinos quickly retook the lead in the bottom of the inning. Falling behind briefly was barely an obstacle.

That, really, is the story of the Dinos’ 10-5 win over the Eagles: In the end, it was a lot easier than it seemed. Hanwha pulled within a run in the seventh, but the Dinos bullpen worked some magic and escaped with the lead. In the bottom of the inning, the Dinos added three runs of their own, and took a 9-5 lead.

That should have been that. But in the eighth, the Eagles put two men on with two outs. So in came Jae-Hwan Bae, a 25-year-old reliever with a 2.25 ERA. He just needed one out — so he hit the first batter he faced, bringing the tying run to the plate. He promptly escaped the inning without allowing a run, but the scent of bullpen collapse was easily detectable.

In the ninth, leading 10-5, Hyun-sik Jang, with a 9.00 ERA on the season, entered to pitch for the Dinos. An easy, throwaway inning. Sure enough, Jang got the first two outs…then allowed a double…then a walk. Two more baserunners would bring the tying run to the plate.

But then Jang induced an easy infield grounder, and the Dinos won. They moved to 14-3, further solidifying their reputation as the team to beat so far this season. Really, the win wasn’t in jeopardy after the seventh. But once you’ve watched a bullpen — any bullpen, no matter how good — for long enough, it’s hard to believe that any lead is safe.

Remember the comfortable days of childhood, when blown leads and bad relievers seemed like the biggest problems we had? The KBO, though the players are unfamiliar, can take you back to those wonderful times. I wish I could go back to 2007, when there was no such thing as COVID and the thing that stressed me out most was Guillermo Mota’s 5.76 ERA. I can’t, of course. But in the present, at least I’ve got Sung-moo Hong.

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