By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Oct. 26 (Yonhap) -- Lotte Giants' ace Dan Straily ended his first season in South Korea the way he started it: with a strikeout.
As the Giants' Opening Day starter on May 5, Straily struck out Shim Woo-jun of the KT Wiz to begin his Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) career. Then last Friday, Straily fanned Lee Jae-won of the SK Wyverns to end the sixth inning, en route to picking up his 15th win of the season in a 3-0 Lotte victory. It was his 31st and final start of 2020.
These strikeouts were fitting bookends to a dominant season in which the former major league right-hander joined some elite company. He finished with 205 strikeouts, becoming the 10th pitcher, and only the second foreign hurler, in KBO history to surpass the 200-strikeout mark in a season.
Straily recorded nine Ks in six shutout innings last Friday. Though there was still one week left in the season at that point, the Giants, who were already out of postseason contention, decided to shut him down for the year.
And the 31-year-old, who posted a 2.50 ERA in 194 2/3 innings, absolutely earned that break. He made 31 starts without once hitting the injured list or having an All-Star break, an annual tradition in a normal year but absent in 2020 due to the delayed start to the season caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
"It's kind of a relief to be done. It was definitely a physical challenge," Straily told Yonhap News Agency in a phone interview on Sunday. He's currently first in strikeouts, second in the league in ERA, second in innings pitched and tied for third in wins.
"It stinks that we're not going to be in the playoffs," he added. "But I am really proud of helping elevate this team from where they were last year (last place) to at least be in contention with a week to go."
Straily, a veteran of 156 major league appearances with six clubs, reflected on his first KBO season and spoke about how he had to work for every one of his wins and strikeouts.
"I came to the KBO with a mission and that was to be the best," he said. "There's only one way I know how to change things and how to be the best, and that is to work hard."
Four years removed from winning 14 games for the Cincinnati Reds and three years since tying for the National League lead with 33 starts, Straily brought strong big league credentials to the KBO. He could've been forgiven for thinking he could start mowing down overmatched KBO hitters with ease.
Instead, he arrived with the exact opposite mindset.
"I came here with the utmost respect for the league and the players, and never once thought I could just walk in here and dominate," Straily said. "I knew I really had to work hard for it. I feel like some guys might feel like you can just show up here and succeed. But you have to really adjust your game and learn the hitters in any league you're playing, and that's no different in the KBO."
He wasn't too proud that he wasn't going to seek help from coaches and even a younger teammate to prepare for the season. At spring training, Straily approached the 25-year-old right-hander Park Se-woong to pick his brain about curveball.
"I thought he had a really good curveball, and he and I had similar fastball spins," Straily said. "I figured it might play with my stuff. I worked on that all spring camp and brought it into the season and used it more and more as the season went on."
Straily also fixed his changeup grip, with the aid of high-speed cameras and coaching staff. He said he wanted to make the pitch more consistent, and it ended up being "an awesome addition to my arsenal" over the final two months of the season.
Straily said he spent a lot of time early in the year talking to his coaches about how to get South Korean hitters, with a focus on star players for each team.
"I think just paying attention to preparation helped me out a lot in getting out of jams throughout the year," he said. "It's just a matter of staying focused and trying to soak up as much knowledge from people around me as possible."
During the six-month grind from May to October, Straily posted a sub-3.00 ERA in five of them, the only hiccup being the 4.66 mark in August. He finished the season strong, with a 4-0 record in five October starts and a 1.97 ERA. Straily's final start was his eighth scoreless start of the year.
"Throwing close to 200 innings was great, and doing it with quality innings," he said. "One of the things I am most proud of is I had eight shutout starts this season. It is hard to throw shutouts in this league, because KBO guys are so good at making contact.
"There are so many things that I am proud of this year that it'll be hard to pinpoint one," Straily continued. "The whole body of work really speaks for itself. I am proud to put my name attached to this first season in the KBO."
Straily didn't just pitch well on the mound. He also became a fan favorite and a popular teammate, despite the language barrier, by throwing himself into the Korean baseball culture in ways few, if any, other foreign players had done in the KBO.
During the season, he made T-shirts bearing images of his teammates, and they became collector's items among diehard Lotte fans. First, it was catcher Kim Jun-tae, with Straily hoping to get the reticent backstop to smile more and enjoy himself on the field. Then Straily picked out outfielder Jeon Jun-woo and shortstop Dixon Machado, highlighting the former's theatrical bat flips and the latter's excellent defense.
Last month, Straily handed out clappers to his teammates and set up a gong inside the dugout to inject more energy, as KBO clubs continued to play without fans during the pandemic. The KBO later asked the Giants to remove the gong from the dugout, but Straily said the instrument has been traveling with the Giants and the players strike it in the clubhouse after every win.
The common thread behind all this was, in a word, fun.
Straily said he had to make an adjustment coming from the relatively quiet American baseball culture -- "I've sat at many ball games in America and not said a word until we scored a run," he said -- so that he could fit into a more raucous KBO culture, with players often cheering hard for every pitch and every hit.
"It was about embracing the culture of having fun at the baseball field that the KBO is so great at," Straily said. "The KBO is such a fun atmosphere to play in, that I just wanted to embrace it and be a part of it. I was just being myself."
As per rule for first-year foreign players, Straily could only sign a one-year contract with the Giants last winter. Fans of the club have already begun clamoring for Straily's return for 2021.
In South Korean sports, the greatest compliment foreign-born athletes can get from fans is the playful threat that their passports will be confiscated so that they won't be able to return to their home country. Straily said he has received those messages on social media and that fans have even made some fake Korean IDs for him.
Straily said no matter where he ends up pitching in 2021, it will be a family decision. If he does sign another deal with the Giants, he said his family will be in South Korea with him.
"I want to be with my wife when the decision starts coming up and my agent starts talking to the team about this," said Straily, who hasn't seen his family for nine months due to COVID-19. "I am sure my agent has talked to Lotte, but I've asked the agent not to tell me about any of it until the offseason. If you start thinking ahead, you forget to finish where you're at. My whole goal was to finish the season strong. That's been the whole mission."
Consider it accomplished.
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