(ATTN: ADDS comments in paras 11, 14-17)
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Oct. 19 (Yonhap) — Yasiel Puig swung hard, admired the majestic shot, and flipped his bat the only way he knows how — with insouciance and defiance.
With that no-doubter home run Wednesday night, Puig finally arrived in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) postseason for the Kiwoom Heroes.
Puig launched that three-run bomb off KT Wiz starter Ko Young-pyo in the top of the first inning in Game 3 of the first round in the postseason. That set the tone for what ended up being a 9-2 victory, helping the Heroes take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series. Puig also hit an RBI single in the third.
The Heroes can close out the defending champions Wiz on Thursday, back at KT Wiz Park in Suwon, south of Seoul.
Few foreign players joined the KBO under as much spotlight as Puig did last December. He was the runner-up in the National League Rookie of the Year race for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013 and was named an All-Star the following season. He enjoyed three consecutive 20-homer seasons, starting in 2017.
But Puig also carried a reputation of being a petulant teammate and a head case. And in the early going, he didn’t come close to dominating KBO pitching the way some optimistic fans and pundits had predicted.
Puig successfully turned things around in the second half, ranking second in the KBO with an on-base plus slugging of .962 and 12 home runs.
Puig has mostly carried that into his first KBO postseason. In Game 1, Puig had two hits and an RBI. After being held hitless in the next game, Puig made his presence felt Wednesday with his four-RBI night.
The 31-year-old is accustomed to playing meaningful games in October. He has 58 major league postseason games under his belt, including 12 games across two World Series trips with the Dodgers. Puig has a career .280/.351/.429 mark with five home runs and 23 RBIs in his big league postseason career.
Then he got his first KBO postseason homer out of the way against the Wiz.
“I tried to make good, hard contact,” Puig said of his home run through an interpreter. “I will try to hit more home runs in upcoming games. But it wasn’t just me today. My teammates all gave their 100 percent and did tremendous job on offense and defense.”
He has often been criticized for watching the flight of his batted balls and not running hard around the bases. Perhaps mindful of that knock against him, Puig sprinted out of the box in Sunday’s Game 1 after hitting a double off the top of the center field wall.
But with Wednesday’s no-doubt homer, which traveled 125 meters (410 feet), Puig could afford to spend a few seconds near the home plate and watch the ball disappear into the seats.
Puig had gone 7-for-9 with a home run and two doubles against Ko during the regular season. Puig said he was aware of his success against the sidearm pitcher, but he still wasn’t going to take Ko lightly Wednesday.
“I knew I hit well against him, but that was in the regular season,” he said. “The postseason is a different animal. I will keep doing the best I can.”
As for his early-season woes, with a .245 batting average and nine home runs in his first 70 games, Puig said he was trying to do too much at the plate.
“I tried to calm down and stay patient in the second half,” the Cuban slugger said. “I was too aggressive at times early on. As the season progressed, I tried to wait for pitches to hit and make solid contact.”
Puig was lifted for pinch hitter in the top of the eighth for mild back pain. The Heroes said the injury was not serious, and they removed the player as a precaution.
Puig’s blast turned out to be more than enough run support for Kiwoom starter Tyler Eppler, who held the Wiz to a run over five solid innings. He struck out five and walked one.
Eppler’s mettle was tested in the bottom of the first, soon after Puig had spotted him a 3-0 lead. With one out and a runner at first, Eppler induced what should have been an inning-ending grounder off the bat of Anthony Alford. But shortstop Sin Jun-woo dropped the ball while taking it out of his glove for the throw, and the inning continued with the heart of the Wiz order coming up.
Eppler struck out Park Byung-ho, the regular season home run king, on four pitches and then got Jang Sung-woo to ground out to third.
Sin made two more errors in the third inning, but Eppler limited damage, only allowing a Kang Baek-ho double that brought in the Wiz’s first run of the game.
The Wiz loaded the bases on the heels of Sin’s second error of that frame, but Eppler induced a rally-killing double play from Kim Min-hyuck’s bat. Fittingly enough, Sin made the throw to complete the 4-6-3 play.
Eppler’s teammates gave him more breathing room by adding three runs in the fourth and another in the fifth for a 9-1 lead. Eppler was done after five innings and 99 pitches, and watched four relievers
It was a gratifying victory for Eppler, who bounced between the rotation and the bullpen in his first KBO season while pitching to a 6-8 record and a 4.30 ERA. He was the cheapest foreign player in the KBO this year, playing on a US$400,000 deal.
For Wednesday night, at least, Eppler pitched like a major bargain.