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Once RYU’s ace resource, shoulder injury to start from scratch for fifth starting spot

“It’s hard to hit even with a 143 mph fastball”

Kim Min-woo (29) became the first Hanwha Eagles pitcher in a decade since Ryu Hyun-jin (37) to be selected as the Opening Day starter for back-to-back years. After a brief hiatus last year, he’s clearly earned the manager’s favor ahead of this season.

“I didn’t feel that (Kim) was that good in the Australian camp, but he was good against KT yesterday (Feb. 28),” Hanwha Eagles manager Choi Won-ho (51) told reporters at the Gochinda Stadium in Okinawa, Japan, Hanwha’s spring training camp.

Kim Min-woo started the 2024 KBO Spring Training exhibition game against KT Wiz at Gochinda Stadium on March 28 and threw 48 pitches in 2⅔ innings, allowing one run on one hit. He gave up three hits and none of his four pitches were strikes. It was just a matter of time before he gave up back-to-back hits in the third inning.

“There was a lot of power on the ball that day,” Choi said. “Pitchers need to see how the hitters are timing their fastballs. “There were some foul balls, some swings and misses that day,” Choi said, “and if the fastball is late, it doesn’t go as far as you think. The fastball is late, and that’s what hitters feel,” he said.

Kim Min-woo has been a key figure in Hanwha’s homegrown starting staff. He joined Hanwha in 2015 after graduating from Masan Yongmago, and after a lengthy learning curve, he became a full-time starter in 2020. In 2020, he went 5-10 with a 4.34 ERA in 26 games and 132⅔ innings pitched. In 2021, Kim was named the Opening Day starter for the first time in his career, and he had a career-high season that year, going 14-10 with a 4.00 ERA in 155⅓ innings pitched in regulation for the first time.

He started the team’s first game in 2022 as well, becoming the first pitcher in 10 years since Ryu Hyun-jin (2011-2012) to earn the honor of starting the opening game two years in a row. After a shaky first half with a 5.00 ERA, he lowered it to 3.58 in the second half and pitched a career-high 163 innings (6-11 with a 4.36 ERA).

Last year, however, was a bit of a disappointment. After starting the season as the No. 2 starter, Kim struggled, going 1-6 with a 6.97 ERA in 12 games. To make matters worse, he was pulled after just one inning of work against Sasik Lotte on June 14 and was diagnosed with a partially torn deltoid muscle in his right shoulder and was lost for the season. After three years of progress, Kim’s career came to a halt.

Shoulder injuries are devastating for pitchers. “The problem is that his pitches have dropped since he had a bad shoulder last year,” Choi said. But Min-woo worked hard, even traveling to the United States to train in the off-season at his own expense, and the results are starting to show in Okinawa.

“It’s not easy to hit Min-woo’s pitches if (Kim) is only hitting around 143 to 144 kilometers per hour,” Choi said, “and it’s hard to hit them if you don’t have good command.” At least for now, the results are satisfactory.

Hanwha has a full roster at the top four spots. They have Ryu Hyun-jin, who has established himself as an unwavering ace, and the foreign duo of Ricardo Sanchez and Felix Peña. Last year’s rookie of the year Moon Dong-joo also has a spot. Kim Min-woo is competing with rookie Hwang Jun-seo for the remaining spot.

Choi noted that “(Kim) still has three years of starting experience and has consistently pitched more than 100 innings,” and pointed out his accomplishments. If he can get his pitches back on track, he shouldn’t have a hard time winning the starting job.

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