By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, March 15 (Yonhap) -- Once a can't-miss prospect, Kiwoom Heroes infielder Jang Young-suk has seen his career derailed by a series of injuries.
A former third overall pick in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), Jang has also had the misfortune of getting nailed in the head by a pitch twice over the past two seasons.
After those pitches to the head, Jang said the mental block proved far more difficult to overcome than whatever physical injuries he's had. He admitted he was "traumatized" by the experience -- he was hit in August 2017 and again in May 2018 -- but he has since found his own way to bounce back.
"When I step into the batter's box, I tell myself, 'Even if I get hit by a pitch, it won't kill me,'" Jang told Yonhap News Agency Friday prior to a preseason game against the Lotte Giants at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. "I used to get really stressed out but now I am trying to keep it simple. I actually stand closer to the plate now than before. If I keep thinking about pitches to the head, it will take me farther away from the plate and take me off my game."
And his game is built on raw power, though he hasn't had much of an opportunity to demonstrate that as a pro. A member of the championship-winning South Korean national team at the 2008 World Junior Baseball Championship, Jang appeared in 16 games as a rookie in 2009 and had two homers. Blocked by more accomplished veterans at both corner infield positions, Jang remained a fringe player for several years. He was little more than backup first baseman and third baseman.
In 2017, he flashed some of the promise that made him a high-end prospect, hitting 12 home runs in 60 games. Last year, he played in a career-high 93 games, putting up seven home runs and 25 RBIs.
Over the winter, the door opened up for Jang to step into a more regular role, as former starting third baseman Kim Min-sung was traded to the LG Twins. Now in his age-29 season, Jang came into spring training fully healthy after elbow surgery and ready to battle Song Sung-mun for the hot corner job.
Jang said he's tried not to place any more pressure on himself than necessary.
"If I think of this as an opportunity that I have to pounce on, then I'll be too stressed out," he said. "My approach hasn't changed. If I win the starting job, that's great. If not, I know I'll still have a chance to play later in games."
Though Jang hasn't been known for his defense -- his shoddy glove is one of the reasons why he hasn't been getting regular playing time -- he insisted he has the edge on Song in fielding.
"I've become really confident in my defense," Jang said. "My coaches have been saying some positive things about my fielding, and I think I can make a difference on defense."
Jang and Song are different types of players. Jang, who bats right-handed, is more of a power hitter. Song bats from the left side of the box and is a contact-oriented hitter with only eight career home runs in 123 games.
Manager Jang Jung-suk said Friday he's not going to platoon either of them, and whoever wins the job out of preseason will be his full-time third baseman.
Three games into the preseason, Jang seems to be ahead. He has gone 3-for-10 with a home run and three RBIs and has handled both first base and third base well on defense. Song has had just one single in his nine at-bats so far.
Manager Jang said the defense between the two players is a wash but added he's been impressed with Jang Young-suk's progress in that area.
"He is a bit slow but still has soft hands. He's more than capable of playing third base," the skipper said. "In a full season, he's someone who can hit .270 to .280 and have 20 or more home runs. That kind of power is what makes him a useful option for us."
Jang the player said his manager has told him to take advantage of that power. The message from the boss was succinct.
"He said, 'Whether you ground out or strike out, it's still the same out. You should go up there and take your own swings,'" the infielder said.
Jang blasted a solo home run against the LG Twins on Wednesday, sending a moon shot that cleared the left field wall with ease. The following day against the Lotte Giants, Jang hit a two-run double off the left field wall for his second extra-base hit in as many days.
The regular season begins on March 23 and it couldn't come a day sooner for Jang.
"I can't wait for the season to start. That's how great I feel about where I am physically," he said. "I think I am peaking at the right time."
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