By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, July 1 (Yonhap) -- The Kiwoom Heroes spent the entire month of June without their American ace Jake Brigham and services of a foreign hitter.
And of course, they had the best record of the month in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO).
The Heroes went 19-6 in June, improving to 31-18 for the season. They're in second place, only two games behind the NC Dinos, which went 14-10 in June.
The Heroes' run is rendered more remarkable by the absence of two key components of any KBO team's roster: a foreign starter and a foreign position player.
KBO teams are each permitted three imports, with a maximum of two pitchers. At the beginning of this season, all 10 clubs carried two pitchers and one hitter from outside the country.
But Brigham went down with an elbow injury after four starts and hasn't pitched since May 22. Brigham's absence -- he was 13-5 with a team-best 2.96 ERA last season -- was supposed to leave a gaping hole in the Heroes' rotation, but other pitchers have more than ably stepped up and helped the Heroes post the best team ERA for June with 3.25.
Utility player Taylor Motter was cut at the end of May after batting .114, and so it's conceivable that the Heroes may be better off without him anyway. And they didn't miss a beat, with the usual suspects Lee Jung-hoo and Kim Ha-seong doing their things -- Lee tying for the league lead with 37 hits in June -- and slugger Park Byung-ho showing some signs of life after a dismal start.
Third-string catcher Joo Hyo-sang was the unlikely hero, delivering walk-off hits on back-to-back nights on June 18 and 19. Light-hitting infielder Kim Hye-seong batted .310 and ranked second on the team with 17 RBIs in June.
On the mound, the Heroes closed out the month with three straight brilliant starts from Eric Jokisch, Choi Won-tae and Lee Seung-ho.
On Saturday, Jokisch flirted with a perfect game before losing the bid with two outs in the seventh against the Kia Tigers. He ended up with eight scoreless innings of one-hit ball in a 2-0 victory.
The following day, Choi also held the Tigers to one hit over seven shutout innings for a 1-0 win. Then on Tuesday, Lee held the Doosan Bears to a run over six innings in an 11-2 rout.
Lee's turnaround has been particularly encouraging for the Heroes. He pitched to a 7.83 ERA in May across five starts. But in five starts in June, Lee had a 1.86 ERA. After walking 16 batters in his first seven starts, Lee hasn't issued any free pass in his past three.
Manager Son Hyuk said Lee was the team's most valuable player for June.
"If Seung-ho had pitched poorly without Brigham in the rotation, our bullpen would have been really taxed," Son said. "But he's been consistently pitching deep into games, and it has helped the bullpen tremendously."
And that bullpen posted the league's lowest ERA for June at 4.3. With closer Cho Sang-woo taking care of business in the ninth, the Heroes have an abundance of arms that can be the bridge.
They're 9-0 in one-run games this season, in part due to their stout bullpen, timely hitting and a fair bit of luck.
The Heroes will get much-needed reinforcement in July. Brigham is expected to be back by the middle of the month. They signed former major league infielder Addison Russell on June 20 in place of Motter, and Russell could be in the lineup by the end of July.