The 134-win legendary coach’s much-needed comeback…”Never give up”
“He said, ‘You’ll get your chance, and I want you to hold on to it and never give up.'”
Doosan Bears sidearm Choi Won-jun, 29, visited SSG coach Kim Won-hyung before the SSG Landers game against the Jamsil SSG on March 26. SSG was practicing on the field, and as Choi watched the players bat from behind the batting cage, he walked over to Kim’s side, greeted him, and chatted for a while.
He needed a place to vent his frustrations. Choi joined the Doosan organization as a first-round pick in 2017 after graduating from Dongguk University, and he began playing with the first team in the 2019 season. 2019 was also the year that Kim began his tenure as Doosan’s pitching coach. He was by Choi’s side when he was given the opportunity to be the backup starter during the 2020 season and earned his first 10-win season. Kim was there for Won-jun when he was just starting to blossom, and he was there to help him continue to blossom. Although Kim has since left Dusan to take the helm of SSG in 2021, Won-jun has maintained a relationship with the coach who knows him best, often turning to him for advice.
This year, Choi is having his toughest season since his professional debut. After establishing himself as a domestic ace with 10 wins in 2020 and 12 wins in 2021, he was determined to bounce back this year after winning just eight games last year, but he went just 3-9 with a 5.06 ERA in 22 games and 94⅓ innings pitched. Eventually, he was dropped from the starting rotation in the middle of last month and was forced to move to the bullpen. This was unthinkable when he was considered an ace leading the Korean starting rotation just two years ago.
Kim used his own experience as a player to ease Choi’s pain. After graduating from Jeonju, Kim began his professional career with the Ssangbangul Raiders in 1991 and won 134 games before retiring in 2010. Although he only had four 10-win seasons, they were valuable in the multiplier of wins he accumulated during his 20-year professional career. Based on this experience, Kim emphasized to Choi not to get carried away with his performance right away.
“He said that even though he won over 130 games, he didn’t have a season where he won 10 games every year as a starter. He told me that even though younger kids are starting (now), you’ll get your chance, and I should never give up and hold on to it until the end,” Choi said.
“I had a good season with him, so I think that’s why I ask him for help a lot and I’m very willing. When I go to the Incheon stadium or when he comes to my room, I always visit him and talk to him, and I call him often. I think it helps a lot to talk to him like that,” he added, expressing his gratitude.
Choi earned his third win of the season on July 7 against the Jamsil KIA Tigers, going five innings and 59 pitches with four hits, no walks and one strikeout. It was Choi’s first opportunity to start in the bullpen in over a month, and he proved his worth. He topped out at 143 mph on his fastball and averaged 140 mph, and his offspeed pitches – a slider, curveball, and changeup – worked well. Sixth-ranked Doosan won 3-0, ending a 10-game winning streak for fifth-ranked KIA and keeping its top-five hopes alive. They now have a three-game lead over KIA.
He could have pitched more than six innings if not for a blister on his right middle finger that peeled off during a practice pitch before the top of the sixth inning. He fulfilled his duties as a substitute pitcher 200%. Doosan manager Lee Seung-yeop made it clear that Choi would have to prove it with results before he could continue to get the starting nod, but he did just that.
“They were in a good mood and hitting well, so I didn’t want to give them an early lead. I thought our bullpen was good enough to protect us from behind, so I didn’t think about five or six innings, but one inning at a time.”
In addition to Kim, he also thanked those around him who gave him encouraging advice. Doosan reliever Yang Yang-ji and LG pitcher Lim Chan-kyu were especially helpful.
“At the beginning of the season, I didn’t think it was that bad, but I think I was shaken up when people said my fastball dropped a lot. (Yang) gave me confidence by saying, ‘It’s no problem, your ball is good. Another thing I’m grateful for is that he said he would start as a catcher if I went out. I had a hard time this year, but he helped me a lot and said a lot of good things, so I think I’m holding on until the end,” he confessed.스포츠토토
He continued, “He told me that he’s had his ups and downs throughout his baseball career. He told me not to think too much about it and to keep it simple on the mound because it’s not just you. I think what he said about thinking too much helped me. I’m also grateful to my LG brother Lim Chan-kyu. He said a lot of good things when I played against him last week.”
It’s a resurgence, but it’s a little early to be laughing. He still needs to survive the competition with Choi Seung-yong and Park Shin-ji to secure his next start.
Choi said, “The better player should go out first. I accepted (going to the bullpen) because I wasn’t good. It was an inconvenience to the team, so I think I pitched with a little more focus. Today (July 7), if I didn’t pitch well, someone else would have gotten the chance. That’s always in the back of my mind. This is a competitive place. I just have to show up,” he said, adding that he will continue to do his best with the opportunities he is given.