Bong fighting back to put Twins on top
Returning from grueling training sessions in the United States and Okinawa, Japan, the 36-year-old pitcher looked as if he had just undergone survival training. His face was sun-burnt and covered with an overgrown beard. He had also lost so much weight that his cheeks looked sunken.
Bong was the closer for the Twins for the past four seasons. However, he is now competing with other pitchers on the mound as starting pitcher this season. As a closer, Bong recorded over 30 saves in 2013 and 2014 to lead the team into the post season. He had 38 saves in 2013 and 30 in 2014. But his performance slumped from the beginning of the season last year.
His pitching speed nosedived and he began to lose ball control. Consequently, he lost his confidence and started to make mistakes more frequently. There were a few incidents when he stepped off the mound smiling bitterly after blown saves.
The fall of Bong led to the fall of the Twins. Twins manager Yang Sang-moon felt that if Bong could return to his old self, the team would be stabilized and make its comeback. However, Bong could not recover and the Twins stayed at the bottom of the league standing. As hope for the Twins dwindled, Bong decided he would try his luck as starting pitcher. The stress of being the closer was too much to handle.
After testing himself as the starter in the final two games of the season last year, Bong joined the rest of the team for training at Kochi, Japan. “I did not slack off even for a moment,” said Bong. “I had to concentrate.” After training he flew to Saipan for additional training. He even managed to survive more than 40 days of spring camp from Arizona to Okinawa.
Even for a seasoned pitcher the schedule can be rather brutal. Despite the schedule, Bong continued to find his way to the weight room during the winter. The intensity of his weight training was evident as his body fat level went down drastically from 19% to 9% over the season.
When asked about his physical condition, Bong said, “I am in as good of physical shape as I was in my 20’s. I lost about 8 kilograms (17 pounds). I did not intend to lose this much though. I think I will have to re-gain about 3 kilograms during the exhibition games.”
Manager Yang is pleased with Bong’s change. “I can definitely consider him as starting pitcher,” he said.
However, a player cannot hide his age. His fastball, which exceeded 150 kilometers per hour (93 miles per hour) in his heyday, has undoubtedly decelerated. Bong will have to count on his experience and ball control if he wants to demonstrate that he still can play in the upcoming season alongside the younger players.
Bong’s change is a core factor in the Twins pitching rotation. The Twins plan to keep the starting pitcher lineup from the previous season which includes Henry Sosa, Woo Kyu-min and Ryu Jae-kuk. In addition, manager Yang plans to finalize the starting pitcher rotation with Bong and an additional foreign player who has yet to join the franchise. For the closing position that used to belong to Bong, Jeong Chan-heon and Lim Jeong-woo are currently competing for the post.
After finishing ninth last season, Yang has also revamped the team’s outfield roster with younger players. Outfielders such as 26-year-old Jung Joo-hyun, 22-year-old Kang Seung-ho and 28-year-old Lee Chun-woong are playing well in exhibition games. If these players maintain their pace and the starting pitching line-up becomes more stabilized, it would pave the way for the Twins’ success in the upcoming season.
“I have been throwing 70 to 80 balls a day,” said Bong. “I think I paced myself a little too hastily. I will re-calibrate my tempo in accordance with the regular season schedule. I will make sure the team and I come out smiling at the end of this season.”
BY KIM WON [email@example.com]