SEOUL, Oct. 17 (Yonhap) — It took Kiwoom Heroes outfielder Im Ji-yeol 40 regular season games to get his first career home run in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). But in the postseason, with much more at stake, Im got his first dinger out of the way in his very first game Sunday.
It came in the bottom of the eighth inning of the Heroes’ 8-4 victory over the KT Wiz in the first game of their best-of-five series. The game was all tied at 4-4 heading into the eighth, but the Heroes broke the tie with a single and a sacrifice fly. Then Im’s two-run, opposite field blast blew the game wide open.
The part-time player had entered the game as a pinch hitter for veteran Lee Yong-kyu in the seventh inning but struck out swinging. Manager Hong Won-ki kept Im in the lineup in that key eighth inning spot, and the 27-year-old responded with the homer that gave the Heroes some breathing room.
Speaking to reporters before Game 2 of the series at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on Monday, Im said he was not particularly bothered by the strikeout in his first at-bat.
“I always try to step into the box feeling confident in my swing,” Im said. “Although I didn’t get the result I wanted in the first at-bat, I still tried to stick to my game plan. I felt that as long as I stayed with it, the result would follow.”
Im played a career-high 40 games this past regular season, with a home run and 15 RBIs along with a .275/.331/.344 line. He hadn’t gone deep in his previous 31 regular season games, spread over three seasons.
After making his postseason debut off the bench Sunday, Im will make his first postseason start Monday, with the Heroes hoping the right-handed Im can provide some pop against left-handed starter Wes Benjamin.
Im said he will try to keep his emotions in check, understanding the grinding nature of baseball.
“I shouldn’t get too down on myself just because I didn’t start yesterday, and I shouldn’t get too excited just because I am in the starting lineup today,” Im said. “The only thing I can do is to continue to prepare for games the way I’ve been doing all along.”
Im, the second-round draft pick in 2013, is the son of former KBO player Im Ju-taek, who is now in charge of baseball operations for the Hanwha Eagles’ minor league team. The junior said he spoke to his father after Sunday’s game, though the conversation was mostly business as usual between them.
“I am really thankful for my parents’ support,” Im said. “It’s taken me a while to get to where I am, and they’ve always been very supportive and patient.”
Im Ji-yeol was born Im Dong-hwi but changed his name in 2016. It has been a quirky tradition in the KBO for struggling young players to change their birth names in hopes of a turnaround, with NC Dinos’ All-Star outfielder Son Ah-seop being the most successful case so far.
While a name change is often a sign of desperation for players, Im said his mindset hasn’t changed over the years.
“When it comes to preparing for games, I am still the same player that I’ve always been,” Im said. “And I still have so much room for improvement, and I have to keep putting in the work.”