By Rob Rains
When Kwang Hyun Kim left his home in South Korea in February to join the Cardinals for the start of spring training, he had no idea what was to come over the next six months.
His long and winding journey, interrupted more than once, has ultimately brought him to where he really wanted to get – the postseason.
Kim will start game one of the best-of-three wild card round for the Cardinals on Wednesday against the Padres in San Diego. The game is set to begin at 4 p.m. St. Louis time.
Giving Kim the ball to start game one was an assignment that he earned, manager Mike Shildt said on Tuesday, knowing first-hand how well Kim pitched this season – while seemingly dealing with one obstacle after another.
“He really dealt with a lot of different things that has been well-documented over the course of the season,” Shildt said, “as much as anybody else or maybe more. He’s been a complete pro in the way he’s handled it and has performed extremely well on the mound.
“Great competitor. Pitch-maker. Excited for him to pitch game one.”
Kim left his wife and two young children at home in South Korea when he made the trip to Florida, expecting they would be abe to join him in June. That didn’t happen because of the coronavirus pandemic, limiting his communication with them to telephone calls and video chats.
When spring training camps were closed in March, Kim made his way to St. Louis, where for more than two months almost his only activity was playing catch with his throwing partner, Adam Wainwright, several times a week,
The delayed and shortened season finally started in late July, but after playing only five games, Kim and the rest of the Cardinals found themselves confined to their hotel rooms in Milwaukee for a week and then another week of quarantining at home because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Back playing again in mid August, it was just three weeks later that Kim found himself in the emergency room of a Chicago hospital because of a blockage of his kidney. A stay on the injured list followed before Kim finally was able to pitch again.
He made three starts after returning and finished the year with a 3-0 record in seven starts with a 1.62 ERA. The Cardinals won five of his seven starts. Four of the seven runs he allowed for the year, and two of the three home runs he gave up, came in one start in Pittsburgh.
“I think it was worth the experience,” Kim said about his journey through his interpreter on Tuesday. “It was really a hard time for us but every player did their job. Having gone through those adversities we are way more stronger. I’m just blessed to be part of this team because everybody does their job well. This experience we had, even though it was hard times in the regular season, that will help us be better in the postseason.”
One of Kim’s strengths was his ability to make pitches when he got into a jam. He allowed only five hits in 32 at-bats when facing a hitter with runners in scoring position.
Kim will be the first lefthander to start a postseason game for the Cardinals since Jaime Garcia started game two of the 2015 Division Series against the Cubs, a game he had to leave after two innings. Garcia also is the last lefthander to start game one of a postseason series for the Cardinals, in the 2011 NLCS.
The last Cardinals lefthander to start and win a postseason game was Mark Mulder in 2005, and the last lefthander to start and win game one of a series was Greg Mathews in the 1987 NLCS.
Kim will be pitching against the Padres for the first time, which usually is an advantage for a pitcher. He has, however, pitched at Petco Park before. That was in 2009 when he was part of the South Korean team participating in the World Baseball Classic. Just 20 at the time, that was when he was first scouted by the Cardinals.
Starting a lefthander could be an advantage for the Cardinals against the Padres, who were one of the best hitting teams in the National League during the season but had more of their success against righthanders.
Of the Padres 60 games, 20 were against lefthanded starters. They were 10-10 in those games while going 27-13 in games when facing a righthanded starter.
Fernando Tatis Jr. hit only three of his 17 home runs against lefthanders, and had a .242 average, compared to a .290 average against righthanders. Overall, the Padres hit only three home runs off lefthanders in 231 plate appearances from Aug. 28 to the end of the regular season.
Even though he hasn’t faced the Padres, Kim said he had reached out to get some scouting advice from a former teammate in Korea, Merrill Kelly, now with Arizona, and fellow Korean Hyun Jin Ryu.
“They’ve never seen me before but I’ve seen their video, so I think I have an advantage,” said Kim, who also said he likes to make in-game adjustments once he sees what a hitter is trying to do against him.
“I’m kind of a guy who reads the hitter,” he said. “I’ve been doing that for a while. Even though I will be prepared for the game, during the game reading the hitter I think is really important for me.”
Kim, who turned 32 in July, does have postseason experience from his years pitching in South Korea.
“One of the feedbacks I got from last offseason from people I trust in the game was that he was a very talented guy but really stepped up in the competition,” Shildt said.
The Cardinals’ strength this season has been their pitching staff and that likely will need to continue to be the case if they want to advance through the playoffs when runs almost always seem to be at more of a premium.
“Pitching wins baseball games pure and simple,” said Matt Carpenter. “Hitting is one of the hardest things to do in sports. It can be at times touch and go. A really good offensive team can be shut down by a pitcher on any given day, especially in the postseason. Anytime you have a great group of arms like we do you’ve got a really good chance to make a run. I like our chances.”
Carpenter also liked the decision to start Kim in game one, with Adam Wainwright scheduled to follow in game two, and if necessary, Jack Flaherty in game three.
“I see a guy who is just a really great competitor,” Carpenter said of Kim. “You found out from him earlier this year he has won four championships in his country then comes over here and just fits in right away with our club. He goes out to compete every single time. I’m really just impressed with what kind of winner and competitor he is and you can’t say enough about the pace he pitches with, his ability to throw strikes.
“Anytime he gets the ball we feel like we have a real good chance to win the game.”
While the Cardinals’ selection of Kim to start the opener over Flaherty came as a mild surprise, the Padres are going with another surprise selection, Chris Paddack, as their game one starter. That decision was based in part because of the health of their two best starters, Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger, both of whom had to come out of their last starts last week because of arm issues.
Their status and availability to perhaps start either games two or three in the series has not been determined.
Paddack started twice against the Cardinals in 2019, allowing just two runs and three hits in a combined 9 2/3 innings. Players still on the St. Louis roster are a combined 2-of-25 in their careers against Paddack.
The Cardinals will be facing Paddack and the Padres after having two days off on Monday and Tuesday – a much needed break after playing 53 games, including 11 doubleheaders, in the 44 days between Aug. 15 and Sunday.
“I think you are literally talking about guys getting their feet back under them, physically and mentally,” Shildt said. “I think it will only provide a benefit for sure.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains and read his stories @STLSportsPage.com for complete Cardinals coverage during the postseason
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports