[SPORTS VIEW]I'm betting Chan-ho gets fastball bac

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[SPORTS VIEW]I'm betting Chan-ho gets fastball bac

Park Chan-ho didn't generate much good news last year, although pictures of him regularly graced the front pages of local sports dailies. After winning at least 13 games for five straight seasons as a Los Angeles Dodger, Park floundered in his first campaign with the Texas Rangers, compiling a 9-8 record. His earned run average ballooned to 5.75, compared with 3.27 and 3.50 in his previous two seasons with the Dodgers. In the eyes of the Rangers, who paid him umpteen million dollars to be their ace, Park underperformed last year, to put it nicely.

But a new season is approaching and local reporters and fans are beginning to make their predictions on how Park will do.

Things appear to be going in the right direction for Park, who will turn 30 this year. Orel Hershiser has been named the Rangers' pitching coach. Hershiser, a three-time all-star who retired three years ago, was a Dodger in '94, when Park joined the club, and in 2000, when Park had his best year. The two had an excellent relationship while they were together with the Dodgers; Hershiser acted as Park's mentor.

Last year, the Rangers finished dead last in the American League West division, with a 72-90 record. Most disturbingly for Park, their bullpen blew 32 save opportunities, more than any other club in the majors. The Rangers have addressed that problem by bringing in Ugueth Urbina, who had 40 saves in 46 tries for the Red Sox last season.

While these factors should help Park to bounce back, he has to take care of a few more things.

The Rangers' home games, at The Ballpark in Arlington, are hot and steamy in the peak of summer, and the weather takes its toll. In order to be effective, a pitcher there has to concentrate, be consistent and control the location of his pitches. Park has never been known for his consistency, and his control failed him last year, when he allowed 78 bases on balls in only 145 innings. If he's wild like that again this year he'll be throwing far too many pitches.

Another concern is his fastball, which was his bread and butter with the Dodgers. Last season, it lost its pop, and Park had to rely more on his other pitches, his curve, slider and changeup. Batters were able to sit back and tee off. To succeed this year, his wicked fastball will have to return.

Park should have more confidence this year, being more familiar with the American League and the new ballpark. Maybe that will help him get his fastball back. And staying healthy -- he went on the disabled list twice last year -- is crucial.

Assuming Park gets his hard stuff back, he'll be able to count on that for at least a few more years. During that time he should master his other pitches, if he wants to stay in the majors as long as Hershiser did.

What do I see Park doing next year? I'm optimistic about him, but a bit pessimistic about the Rangers. I predict Park will win 17 games and get his ERA down to around 3.40. Unfortunately, the rest of the Rangers' starting pitchers will struggle, as they have in recent years. The club will climb out of the cellar, but finish no better than third.

by Brian Lee
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