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Rookie pitcher surprises fans in first 3 starts

Apr 25,2006

Ryu Hyun-jin, left-handed starter for the Hanwha Eagles. [YONHAP]

A rookie pitcher has taken the early Korean baseball season by storm, but it’s not the player many expected it to be.
The hot rookie coming into the season was Han Ki-joo, a flamethrower who came out of high school to sign with the Kia Tigers. Fans and observers alike gushed about his ability, with some suggesting Han could win the pitching triple crown ― wins, strikeouts and earned run averages ― in his first year.
Sure, it’s early in the season, but Han has yet to live up to those lofty expectations, and has but one win to show for his first three starts. Along with a rather unimpressive 5.65 ERA, Han has struck out only seven batters in 14.1 innings.
To give baseball fans their rookie fix, however, the Hanwha Eagles’ left-handed starter Ryu Hyun-jin has emerged with one of the best starts to a career by a rookie pitcher in league history.
Sunday, Ryu pitched his first career complete game, striking out 11 Doosan Bears hitters and limiting them to just three hits. What’s more impressive was that the game was delayed for about 20 minutes because of rain, and Ryu was still able to finish the game. Starting pitchers often don’t make it back to the mound after rain delays because their arms can get cold and they can lose the arm strength they might have built up to that point.
After only three starts, Ryu, 19, already has two double-digit strikeout games under his belt. In his professional debut against the LG Twins on April 12, Ryu struck out 10 batters, tying the record for most K’s by a rookie pitcher in his first career start, last accomplished by Kim Jin-woo of the Tigers. Ryu’s 151-kilometer (93 miles) per hour fastball, complemented by a nasty slider and changeup, has so far baffled hitters.
Though it’s early in the season, Ryu’s numbers are staggering: a perfect 3-0 record, 28 strikeouts in 23 innings pitched, and 0.78 ERA.
So what has been the recipe for Ryu’s success?
The novelty factor is one. The likes of Han and the Lotte Giants’ right-handed starter Na Seung-hyun entered the professional ranks under much brighter spotlights because of their remarkable high school playing days, but Ryu flew under the radar during most of the pre-draft buildup, and was only selected in the second round. Han pitched in several nationally-televised games and his fastballs quickly caught attention in the speed-obsessed world of Korean baseball.
So while Han was busy counting his 1 billion won ($1.06 million) signing bonus, Ryu, who received a quarter of that, worked on adjusting his arm angle so he could still get maximum power out of his surgically repaired left arm.
Under the watchful guidance of pitching coach Choi Dong-won, himself a fireballer from the ’80s, Ryu, 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds, came out of spring training armed with a top-notch fastball as well as an array of effective offspeed pitches.
Another reason for Ryu’s early success is his temperament. On the mound, Ryu’s facial expression doesn’t change from one situation to the next. He is so unflappable that even after a strikeout, Ryu appears as though the home plate umpire had just squeezed his strike zone.
His cool, even disposition should help him as much as his pitches because Ryu is sure to deal with more difficulties down the road than he has so far; hitters will figure him out, the novelty factor will wear out and rookie pitchers almost invariably tend to tire during the dog days of summer.
Still, having won his first three decisions, Ryu is off to a start that no other rookie southpaw, not even his much more decorated teammates Song Jin-woo and Koo Dae-sung, enjoyed.
Suffice to say, Ryu is well on his way to go from being “What’s-His-Name” to joining the “Who’s Who” of Korean baseball.


by Yoo Jee-ho


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