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(Yonhap Interview) Hard-hitting teammates put smile on face of American right-hander

All Headlines 13:32 March 20, 2018

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, March 20 (Yonhap) -- The lineup for the Nexen Heroes is so strong that it could make opposing pitchers cry in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO).

But for the Heroes starting pitcher Jake Brigham, the mere thought of enjoying the run support brings a smile to his face.

"Every time I think about it, I smile," Brigham told Yonhap News Agency on Tuesday at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, before the Heroes hosted the LG Twins in a preseason game. "It's really exciting. We're going to be a threat."

The lineup Brigham was talking about welcomed back slugging first baseman Park Byung-ho, a two-time regular season MVP and a four-time home run king. After belting out 52 homers in 2014 and 53 in 2015, Park signed with the Minnesota Twins. He mostly toiled in the minors before rejoining his former team.

In this file photo taken Sept. 17, 2017, Jake Brigham of the Nexen Heroes throws a pitch against the NC Dinos during a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Masan Stadium in Changwon, 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul. (Yonhap)

Park will be hitting behind the reigning Rookie of the Year Lee Jung-hoo, who set freshman records with 179 hits and 111 runs scored. Also setting the table will be Seo Geon-chang, who has a career batting average of .316 and on-base percentage of .392.

Should Park bat cleanup as expected, he will be surrounded by a couple of other boppers: Kim Ha-seong, who has averaged 21 home runs over the past three seasons, and Michael Choice, who launched 17 home runs in just 46 games in 2017 as a midseason arrival.

The Heroes used to be the biggest home run-hitting club in the KBO with Park and shortstop Kang Jung-ho in the fold. But following their departures to the U.S. and the move from the hitter-friendly Mokdong Stadium to the cavernous Gocheok Sky Dome, the Heroes have ranked in the lower half of the league in the long ball department in the past two years.

But they have remained among the league leaders in doubles and triples over the same span. And if they can add some homers to the equation, Brigham would be more than pleased.

"Our offense speaks for itself," Brigham said. "The names alone in the lineup ... everybody knows they can hit."

But the American right-hander also understands he has to take care of business at his own end. After arriving in the KBO in May last year, Brigham went 10-6 in 24 starts with a 4.38 ERA.

"I made more than 20 starts, and I got a feel for the league and feel for the guys," he said. "I am excited to see what the possibilities are. I have very high expectations for myself."

Brigham has made one preseason start, against the Hanwha Eagles last Wednesday. He allowed five earned runs on five hits in five innings. Four of those runs came in the fifth inning, and Brigham said he pitched better than the final line showed.

"I just got fatigued in the last inning, which is normal for spring training," he said. "I am building up my stamina and strength. I feel like I am in a really good spot right now."

As good as Nexen's hitters are, Brigham also got to see firsthand how dangerous KBO hitters can be. He served up 17 homers in 144 innings, a number he'd like to see fall this year.

In this file photo taken July 25, 2017, Jake Brigham of the Nexen Heroes (No. 8) is greeted by teammates after completing the seventh inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game against the LG Twins at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul. (Yonhap)

"The hitters are really good here. But baseball is baseball. If you make good pitches, you'll get good hitters out," he said. "If I can focus on myself and focus on making my pitches when I need to make them, I'll be successful."

Brigham said he has also benefited from having a U.S.-born pitching coach, Brandon Knight, by his side. Before becoming the Heroes' coach, Knight pitched six years in the KBO, the last four for the Heroes.

"He can communicate to me really well the differences and help me make adjustments a lot faster," Brigham said. "It's nice having his knowledge and experience, for sure. I am sitting next to him all the time. He's faced a lot of these hitters. He and I are very similar pitchers. He tells me, 'This is how I got this guy out, and this is what you need to do or think about.'"

Spring is the time when hope springs eternal for baseball teams, and Brigham was particularly effusive about his team's chances this year. The Heroes missed the postseason -- open to the top four teams with the fifth-place team getting the wild card -- in 2017, the first time they missed out on the big dance since 2012. But Brigham believes they'll be back in 2018.

"We're going to be in the top three. Our offense, our pitching ... we have so much more this year than we did last year," he said. "And we were good last year. The last month of the season, we ran into some bad string of games and nothing was clicking. I think we're going to be one of the teams to beat this year."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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