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Virtual unknown emerges as unlikely hero for Nexen in preseason baseball

All Headlines 09:59 March 14, 2014

SEOUL, March 14 (Yonhap) -- A virtually unknown outfielder has emerged as an unlikely hero for the Nexen Heroes so far this preseason in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO).

Kang Ji-kwang, a 23-year-old pitcher-turned-outfielder, has taken the league by storm, barely a week into the preseason. On Thursday, the right-handed batter belted two home runs and drove in three runs as the Heroes defeated the SK Wyverns 6-0. Both of the long balls were hit off SK's former Major League Baseball (MLB) starter, left-hander Jo-Jo Reyes.

Kang now leads the league with three home runs, five runs scored and 13 total bases in 14 at-bats, and is tied with two others for the league-high five runs batted in (RBI). He's batting .286, with a .450 on-base percentage and a .929 slugging percentage.

Kang has played in all five preseason games for the Heroes through Thursday, and their record sits at three wins, one loss and one tie.

Virtual unknown emerges as unlikely hero for Nexen in preseason baseball - 2

It's been a pleasantly surprising run for the career minor leaguer, who is trying to make the most of his limited opportunities this preseason.

Kang was a late-round pick by the LG Twins out of high school in 2009, but he underwent an elbow surgery that same year, which forced him to sit out the 2010 season, too.

After completing his mandatory military service, Kang's elbow didn't improve much, and that prompted him to switch to an outfielder before the 2013 season.

Last year, Kang batted .231 in 21 games in the Futures League, the KBO's minor league, but was left off the Twins' 40-man roster after the season. The Heroes picked him up in the Rule 5 draft last winter.

Given a reprieve with a new club, Kang had a solid spring training camp and manager Yeom Kyung-yup promised to give the player plenty of action during the preseason.

Yeom had actually watched Kang in high school as a scout for the Twins. The manager has already said Kang will most likely begin the regular season in the minors, but that hasn't prevented him from extolling virtues of his diamond in the rough, saying Kang has the talent to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in a season.

Kang said he's just trying to enjoy the ride.

"I think playing every game has helped a great deal," Kang told reporters after Thursday's game. "In practice games during the spring training, I didn't draw any walks in 25 plate appearances. I am walking more now (four walks in 20 plate appearances) and seeing the ball better. I've grown more confident because my on-base percentage has gotten better, too."

Kang said he weighed 87 kilograms when he first joined the Heroes late last year but has since put on 12 kilograms. Kang, who's listed as 181 centimeters tall, said the extra weight has helped him generate more power.

Kang said he knows about Yeom's plans to put him in the minor league to start the season. The player said he'd like to stay with the big club but he is also trying to take a long-term view.

"Obviously, I want to play (in the KBO) but at the same time, I'd like to play in as many games as I can," Kang said. "I'd like to gain more experience while playing a lot of games (in the Futures League)."

Some may draw comparisons between Kang and Yasiel Puig, a rookie sensation for the Los Angeles Dodgers last year. The Cuban-native showed flashes of brilliance in the preseason with three home runs, 11 RBI and a .526 batting average in 57 at-bats. Puig began the regular season in the minors before getting called up in early June. He went on to bat .319 and slug 19 homers in just 104 games. Puig finished second in the voting for the National League Rookie of the Year, behind Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins.

Puig and Kang are both 23 years old and wear No. 66.

The Heroes made their first playoffs in 2013, after finishing third in the regular season. In the best-of-five opening round of the postseason, they blew a 2-0 series lead against the Doosan Bears and bowed out in five games.

If the Heroes were to go deeper in the postseason this year, they could certainly use an extra bat off the bench. Yeom already said last week Kang's surge could add some much-needed depth to the Heroes' outfield.

Most of the Heroes' power production came from their infielders: first baseman Park Byung-ho, the league MVP in 2012 and 2013, led the KBO with a career-high 37 home runs. Shortstop Kang Jung-ho hit 22, and third baseman Kim Min-sung added 15. Lee Seong-yeol, who can play outfield, had 18 homers, mostly as a designated hitter.

Centerfielder Lee Taek-geun led Nexen's outfielders with nine homers in 2013.

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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