The Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals were tied 3-3 in the seventh inning Sunday after the Cardinals tied the game for the second time in two innings. Even though St. Louis hadn’t led at any point in the game, it felt as if the Cardinals would find a way to win a game they maybe shouldn’t have — in typical Cardinals fashion.
Steve Lombardozzi pinch hit to start the home seventh and drew a walk. As the Pirates lineup turned over, the top of the order would surely drive in the leadoff runner in some way.
But things haven’t quite gone as planned for Pittsburgh’s hitters early on, leaving manager Clint Hurdle to execute one of his favorite sayings and “draw something up in the dirt” to find creative, alternative solutions to ebbs the Pirates offensive woes.
One of those solutions was moving Jung Ho Kang into the second spot of the batting order with left-hander Tyler Lyons on the mound for St. Louis, and it paid dividends in the second inning when Lyons left an 0-2 fastball over the heart of the plate and Kang sent it over the left field fence.
In the seventh, Hurdle went back “to the post” with Kang by signaling for a sacrifice bunt from the ice-cold Josh Harrison. Kang got an 0-1 fastball from reliever Mitch Harris and singled to left, scoring the eventual game-winning run and redeeming Hurdle’s faith.
Kang finishing 2 for 4 with a home run and two RBIs Sunday, raising his batting average to .333 after the game. At that point, he was hitting .429 in his last 12 games and provided the lift necessary for the Pirates to earn a series victory against St. Louis after they were swept by the Cardinals a week ago.
The game capped a thrilling weekend for Kang, who was a part of the first 4-5-4 triple play in MLB history with Neil Walker the night before.
“He’s swinging the bat well,” Hurdle said after the game. “He’s giving us good at-bats, he’s shown the ability to drive in a run.”
Swinging the bat well is what drew the Pirates interest in Kang, namely after he slugged .739, hit 40 home runs and posted a 1.139 OPS for the Nexen Heroes in the Korea Baseball Organization in 2014.
Although his playing time has been limited early on, the power that attracted teams to Kang has played so far. His .182 isolated power mark is an above-average rate. Kang is slugging .491 and he’s hitting .375 on balls in play despite a 54.8 percent ground ball rate.
Overall, the infielder has posted a .309/.361/.491 slash line in 61 plate appearances spread over 22 games with two home runs.
Shortly before Kang caught fire in recent weeks, a topic du jour in mid-April regarded the idea of Kang being sent to Triple-A to receive more at-bats and better adjust to American baseball. After all, some postulate the level of baseball played in the KBO translates roughly to that played at the Double-A level in the United States.
In theory, it wasn’t a bad idea. Kang could compete against a level of pitching slightly higher than that in the KBO and get a greater number of at-bats than he received early on in Pittsburgh.
But as general manager Neal Huntington and Hurdle were quick to point, there is more for Kang to adjust to beyond simply playing baseball and as he becomes familiar with a new country they’d prefer him to go through that process in Pittsburgh rather than Indianapolis or anywhere else.
Off the field, it appears things are going well in that respect.
“We didn’t want to create a whole other set of variables for him to work through as he’s trying to adjust to a different culture,” Huntington said. “He’s had a nice run here and we look forward to him continuing to help us win games.”
The faith in Kang was well-placed and after a slow start, he’s showing what the front office saw when it decided to add him to the roster. Huntington said Kang’s doing “the same” in regards to what he’s done lately meaning the only differences between now and a few weeks ago are the results.
“One of the reasons we thought it was important for him to stay here was to make adjustments to major-league pitching and to make adjustments to the speed of the major-league game,” Huntington said. “He’s shown the ability to do that and it’s been very encouraging.”
A concern was that Kang might be overwhelmed by the level of pitching presented in the majors. It’s had the opposite effect, as he says he’s much more comfortable than he was earlier in the season.
“It think it’s definitely more at-bats that I get,” Kang said. “They make me comfortable and that’s good.”
Now, as a result of his numbers, some expect to see Kang in the starting lineup on a daily basis. Hurdle, who pays no attention to external noise, will continue to find at-bats for Kang as per his program of “bundling” starts for bench players in order to keep others (Harrison, Walker, etc.) fresh.
“I think that makes the most sense,” Hurdle said. “He’s shown up good this weekend as we’ve bundled these at-bats and given him opportunities he’s moving upon them.”
If Kang keeps hitting, he’ll be moved into the starting nine more and more. But what might endear him to his new teammates and fans the most is that he’s already a good fit in a clubhouse that plays the day’s game as the most important one of the season, and quickly “showers” them off after.
One might think having a big game in front of the home crowd against a division rival would excite a player, or improved performance would elicit a desire for more playing time.
Kang’s response to those notions? “For me it’s always one game at a time.”