[Exclusive] Struggling first-year ‘youngest pirate’ Bae Ji-hwan “I’m looking forward to playing with the juniors” [Creation 54].

[Exclusive] Struggling first-year ‘youngest pirate’ Bae Ji-hwan “I’m looking forward to playing with the juniors” [Creation 54].

Bae Ji-hwan (24-Pittsburgh Pirates) is closing in on his first full season as a big leaguer.스포츠토토

As of Aug. 25, Bae is batting .241 with a .631 OPS (on-base percentage and slugging percentage) and 23 stolen bases. Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to call it a good season. At the beginning of the season, he was noted for his consistent contact and top-notch power. Making the opening day roster for the first time in his Major League Baseball (MLB) career, he made his presence felt in April with a .250 batting average and 11 stolen bases. In May, he showed promise with a .304 batting average and a .360 on-base percentage.

But the big leagues weren’t easy. Slumps and injuries caught up with him in June, when he hit .159, and he ended the first half of the year on the disabled list in July with a left ankle sprain that hadn’t healed.

Bae returned to the MLB on Aug. 19, and will soon be done with the 2023 season. Speaking to us before the end of his first season, Bae recalled his injury: “It was a pain that stopped me in my tracks. As soon as I got hurt, I realized, ‘It’s going to take a while to get better.’ It was frustrating, but I just wanted to get better as soon as possible,” he said.

He used rehabilitation as an opportunity to start over. “Before I got hurt, I wasn’t doing well in baseball. I decided to use my injury as a call-up. During my rehabilitation games, I forgot everything I had played and prepared for my comeback with the mindset of welcoming the new season.” In nine games, he hit .344 with a .462 on-base percentage (OPS) and .531 slugging percentage (OPS) for an OPS of .993, reaffirming that he was not at the minor league level.

“I realized once again that playing full-time is never easy,” Bae said. “There are a lot of teams, so there are a lot of away games and a lot of traveling,” he said. “Repeating every year doesn’t make it any less physically demanding. I have to adapt and get used to it. I’ve been through it, so I’m paying more attention to recovery and rest after I come back.”

Despite her lackluster performance, she proved the value of quick feet. His sprint speed reached 29.7 feet per second, and his 90-foot baseline speed on the ground was 3.77 seconds, good for sixth in MLB. “If I can get off to a good start in the pitcher’s circle, I’m confident I can steal no matter who the catcher is,” Bae said. “Obviously, trying to steal all season has taken a toll on my body. There were times when I got greedy and got thrown out at the plate. Now, I’m working on playing cautiously while utilizing my speed.”

Bae Ji-hwan (right) celebrates with teammate Riobe Peguero after his home run. AFP

It’s been as much of a roller coaster for the team as it has been for the individuals. Pittsburgh went 20-9 with a young roster through April, but since May, they’ve been in the red in terms of win-loss margin every time, and as of May 25, their record is 74-82 (.474 winning percentage).

“The major leagues are really hard, really hard, and it’s really fun when you win,” Bae said. “If I didn’t know the joy of winning last year, I wanted to play winning baseball all the time this year after a good start. It’s too bad that I couldn’t continue the good vibes from the beginning of the season.”

Last year, when Bae was just called up, Pittsburgh was a young team. This year, they’re more seasoned. Pirate Captain Andrew McCutchen, who led the team to its glory days in the 2010s, returned to the Pirates. Veteran pitcher Rich Hill and infielders Carlos Santana and Choi Ji-Man also joined the team.

Bae said, “The veterans really helped us on and off the field. Their presence was comforting and reassuring. They’ve all had great careers, and they’re all really nice people off the field,” he recalls.

“There was a bit of an age difference with Hill (43), but we didn’t let that bother us and we had a lot of fun together,” he said. After every away game, McCutcheon would take me out for a late night snack and play games with me. It may seem like a small thing, but I was a rookie from a foreign country. They really helped me to integrate and adapt to the big league team. I hope that in the future, I can be a senior who can take care of the younger guys like they did.”

Major League Baseball’s oldest pitcher, Rich Hill. AP

After Bae Ji-hwan, high school players continue to knock on doors in the United States. Choi Hyun-il (Los Angeles Dodgers), Cho Won-bin (St. Louis Cardinals), and others have continued to challenge. Earlier this year, Shim Jun-seok went to Pittsburgh, and last summer, Jang Hyun-seok (Masan Yongmago) also signed with the LA Dodgers.

Bae said, “I wasn’t swayed by anything anyone said when I decided to try out for the USA. It wasn’t about my experience as a player, it was just about what they said,” he says, “I gained confidence. “It actually gave me confidence, because I was just a kid at the time, and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to show you guys that I’m different, even if you think I’m not,'” he recalls.

“Crucially, I felt like I had to choose my own path so I wouldn’t have any regrets. If I had played in Korea, no matter how good I was at baseball, I wouldn’t be a major leaguer at my age. Now I don’t regret (coming to the U.S.),” he said.

Bae said, “Players who try to make it to the MLB right away will hear more words of worry than support and encouragement. I want to sincerely support them, and I look forward to the day when we can all play in the MLB together by not giving up and doing our best until the end.”

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