Haunted by postseason failure, right-hander looking to sharpen curveball
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, March 29 (Yonhap) -- Nearly five months have passed, but Kiwoom Heroes right-hander Choi Won-tae says he is still haunted by his postseason nightmare from last season. It is driving him to become a more complete pitcher.
Trying to close out a crucial game in the Korea Series last November, Choi instead ended up on the wrong side of late-inning drama.
The Heroes took a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth against the SSG Landers in Game 5 of the Korean Series. Choi gave up a walk and a single, and then pinch hitter Kim Kang-min crushed a hanging slider at 0-2 count for an improbable three-run homer to power the Landers to a 5-4 win.
The Landers won the next game to clinch the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) championship.
"That moment still pops up in my head from time to time, and I have not watched any highlight from that game," Choi said Tuesday prior to the Heroes' final preseason game against the Doosan Bears at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul.
"I still ask myself, 'Why did I throw that pitch at that moment?'" Choi continued. "Ever since that game, I've been thinking about throwing the curveball more often."
Choi threw back-to-back two-seam fastballs to begin that fateful at-bat, before going with the slider. Those were the two most oft-used pitches for Choi last year, doing so more than 70 percent of the time both in the regular season and the postseason.
Choi, on the other hand, threw his curveball about 11 percent of the time in the regular season, but the usage rate dropped to the single digit in the postseason.
Choi realized later that he became too predictable, especially for an experienced hitter like Kim Kang-min, who was playing in his 21st season and his eighth Korean Series.
"I mostly threw fastballs and sliders, and a veteran that he is, he read my pattern perfectly," Choi said. "Honestly, I didn't even realize right away that the game had ended. The toughest part of it all was that we lost the game because of me. That's the big reason why I decided I should really refine my curveball."
Though Choi had a cameo in the bullpen late in the regular season and in the postseason in 2022, he will return to the starting rotation to begin the 2023 season.
The 26-year-old said pitching in relief has taught him some important lessons.
"I was able to learn firsthand just how difficult it is to pitch out of the bullpen, and I now understand how tough life is for my teammates there," Choi said. "I started thinking about how starters have to help out relievers and cover at least five innings every time out. I am grateful for all the hard work that our relievers put in."
The Heroes should boast one of the KBO's best rotations in 2023. At the top, the reigning strikeout and ERA king An Woo-jin will be joined by the 2020 ERA leader Eric Jokisch, back for his fifth season in the KBO. New acquisition Ariel Jurado looked promising in spring training, with 15 strikeouts against two walks in 12 scoreless innings. A hard-throwing youngster Jang Jae-young will get his first extended look as a starter in his third season.
"I think we have the best one-two punch at the top of the rotation, and it looks like Jurado and Jae-young will both have good seasons," Choi said. "I just have to hold up my end of the bargain."
Choi enjoyed some success as a starter earlier in his career. From 2017 to 2019, he went 35-19 with a 3.92 ERA in 75 starts, eating up 441 innings. He had the third-best ERA and tied for the second-most wins among KBO starters in that span.
From 2020 to 2022, however, Choi pitched to a 4.49 ERA while going 23-22. He hasn't reached double figures in wins since 2019.
Choi said he doesn't set any statistical goal for himself and he doesn't think numbers are that important, anyway.
"I know it sounds boring, but I try to take it one day at a time," Choi said with a smile. "If I start thinking too far down the road, then I'd get stressed out. If I can string together one good day after another, I will have had a good season."
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