By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, March 6 (Yonhap) -- That pitch might have been just a bit outside, but no matter, Drew Rucinski, on the mound for the Los Angeles Angels on July 10, 2014, got his first career major league strikeout against Choo Shin-soo, then leadoff hitter for the Texas Rangers.
Their careers, in Rucinski's words, have come "full circle." Rucinski is now the No. 1 starter for the defending Korean Series champions, NC Dinos. Choo will be playing pro ball in his native South Korea for the first time this year, having signed with the SSG Landers -- formerly the SK Wyverns -- after 16 major league seasons.
In a phone conversation with Yonhap News Agency on Friday, Rucinski laughed at the memory of freezing Choo on a 0-2 slider, saying, "It might have been a ball." Even MLB.com's play-by-play graphic shows the pitch was outside the zone.
But that's well in the past. Rucinski now has to worry about facing Choo in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). Given that the league's 10 clubs face one another 16 times over a 144-game season, these two will surely go mano a mano more than once.
Here's the thing, though: Rucinski isn't going to worry about Choo that much.
"Obviously, he's a phenomenal hitter. But I just want to focus on my game," he said. "You start worrying too much about one hitter, then you forget there are eight other guys in the lineup."
Whether it's that slider that got Choo looking, or the changeup and the four-seam fastball that put the pitcher ahead 0-2 nearly seven years ago, Rucinski will try to stick to whatever game plan he has.
"I have to go pitch my game and make the pitches I can make," Rucinski said. "What (catcher Yang) Eui-ji is putting down, I need to go execute. That's my thought process, regardless of what hitter is up there."
If Rucinski is anywhere close to his 2020 self, he'll be tough to hit, even for a former big league All-Star like Choo.
Rucinski went 19-5 with a 3.05 ERA, exactly the same as his first KBO season in 2019. He made 30 starts in each of the past two years.
He was also excellent in the Korean Series, with a 2-0 record and a save in three appearances as the Dinos beat the Doosan Bears in six games. Rucinski finished second in Korean Series MVP voting.
During the regular year, Rucinski came up just shy of the 20-win plateau -- still an impressive milestone for starting pitchers even in the analytics-driven era that devalues pitching victories -- but the only pitcher to rank ahead of him last year, Raul Alcantara, has gone to Japan.
With the Dinos again expected to contend this year, Rucinski should have plenty of opportunities to pile up wins. But the 32-year-old said he couldn't care less about his individual numbers.
"I got win No. 20 and 21 in the Korean Series, and those were the most important wins for our team," he said. "However individual stats pan out, the main goal is to get the team to the Korean Series and go win the Korean Series."
Rucinski will have a new sidekick in the starting rotation this season, after the Dinos replaced Mike Wright with a former major leaguer, Wes Parsons.
Rucinski has taken the 28-year-old fellow American under his wing, trying to show him the ropes and make the transition to the new league and country easier.
Rucinski said it was especially important to be the mentor for his new teammate this year, because the Dinos set up their spring training in Korea rather than their usual base in Tucson, Arizona, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
"Usually, when we got a new guy, they got a bit of time in Tucson and got used to Korean teammates while we were still on American soil and had American food," Rucinski said. "(Parsons) got dropped off in the deep end. So I've been trying to get him on board as fast as I can, so he won't have to worry about stuff going around him but focus on pitching up to his capability."
And Rucinski likes what he has seen so far from Parsons.
"I think he's getting comfortable here already," Rucinski said. "Definitely, he has the skill sets to succeed here. I think he has the right mindset: work hard and be professional and prepare the best he can. He's got good stuff on the mound, and I think he's going to have a lot of success."
On the offensive side of the equation, the Dinos are prepared to run it back with largely the same core intact from a season ago. Their star outfielder Na Sung-bum attempted to go to the majors in the offseason but failed to land a contract after getting posted. The slugger will have to stay with the Dinos for at least one more season before he can be posted again.
"As his friend, I am sad he didn't get the opportunity to go to the U.S. It's crazy times with COVID-19, and I think, without that, he probably would've had a better opportunity in the U.S.," Rucinski said. "But as a Dinos player, selfishly, I couldn't be happier that he's back."
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