Diamondbacks' Kim comes back strong after World Series nightmare

Posted: Friday, May 10, 2002

PHOENIX -- The image millions of baseball fans have of Byung-Hyun Kim is a sad one -- the stocky young South Korean bent over in emotional agony, consoled by teammate Mark Grace after two dreadful World Series appearances in Yankee Stadium.

Many wondered if they had witnessed the end of his career.

Six months later, with a flamboyant new leg-kick and a baffling array of sidearm pitches, Kim has answered all doubts. As he said so often in spring training, ''I'm fine.''

Kim has appeared in 16 of Arizona's 34 games and allowed one run in 19 innings, for a 0.47 ERA. He has struck out 34, walked five and converted all 10 save opportunities.

''He's been the most dominating pitcher in baseball to this point,'' teammate Curt Schilling said, ''and one of the best stories I've ever been around. After everything he endured last year, and reading story after story of 'was he going to survive?' He's been phenomenal. It's awesome to watch.''

Kim has allowed one hit over his last 9 1-3 innings. In the Diamondbacks' just-completed nine-game homestand, Kim made seven appearances.

He struck out eight in a row before his ninth-inning appearance on Wednesday night in a 4-3 Arizona victory over Pittsburgh. Perhaps a bit weary, he walked two but began a crucial double play when he fielded a bunt and whirled to throw to second, then with the tying run on third struck out Aramis Ramirez to end the game.

''It's hard to keep him out of there,'' manager Bob Brenly said. ''It's so tempting because he's such a great weapon to use.''

Kim has not forgotten the World Series. He relives the two-out, game-tying home run he gave up to Tino Martinez in the ninth inning of Game 4, the game-winning homer he allowed to Derek Jeter moments later, and the game-tying, two-out ninth inning shot by Scott Brosius in Game 5.

''I knew that I did a mistake, and I don't want to repeat that mistake again,'' Kim said through an interpreter. ''That thinking is in my heart always. That was the hardest time I've ever faced in my life.''

Kim went back to South Korea in the offseason, where he was treated as a hero by his countrymen.

''A lot of people appreciated that I was part of the world's best team,'' he said. ''It was rather like having their own son on the team. Although I gave up a few home runs, they still felt that way.''

Kim came back even stronger than before. Propelled by his thick, muscular legs, his fastball has reached 95 mph and routinely hits 93, an unheard of speed from that arm angle. He throws two sliders -- one that sinks and another that appears to rise like a Frisbee -- as well as a curve. He has perfected a changeup that is virtually unhittable when mixed in with his other pitches, and he can vary the speeds on his entire arsenal.

Rather than being vilified by Diamondbacks fans, Kim was greeted with cheers throughout his spring training appearances.

''I want to thank them for that,'' he has said.

Quiet and a bit shy, Kim doesn't like to give interviews, but he does them daily with a handful of Korean reporters who travel with the Diamondbacks to chronicle his every appearance.

His boyish smile masks an intense competitiveness. On the mound, a different personality emerges. He will try to distract hitters by throwing from the stretch for no apparent reason with the bases empty, then following with an elaborate windup on his next pitch. Then there's that leg kick, reserved for pitches he knows are the nastiest the moment they leave his hand.

Teammate Chris Donnels likened the move to a bowler ''converting the seven-10 split.''

Just 23 years old, Kim still insists that he wants to be a starter someday. In Korea, closers are nothing, he explains. The starters are the stars.

He wonders what his role will be when closer Matt Mantei returns later this season after missing year for elbow surgery.

Brenly said he'll worry about that when it happens.

It would be hard to take the closer's role away from an All-Star, and Brenly will select the National League reserves for the midseason classic.

''It's early,'' Brenly said when asked if he would put Kim on the team. ''But if the All-Star game were tomorrow -- absolutely.''

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