Ryu Hyun-jin of Heavenly Ryu eventually rang, but NC held his tongue.

“I have to say, it’s really confusing. I think the line between strike and ball was a little bit really confusing.”

The NC Dinos won 4-3 against the Hanwha Eagles in the 2024 Shinhan SOL Bank KBO League at Changwon NC Park on Sunday, but it wasn’t easy. Hanwha Eagles ace Ryu Hyun-jin was a tough nut to crack. Ryu gave up three runs on three hits (one home run) and two walks while striking out eight in seven innings and 98 pitches. Despite falling short of the 100-win mark, NC was forced to play hard to get as they were beaten by Ryu’s pitches.

Ryu utilized his fastball (31 pitches) and changeup (31 pitches) in equal proportions, but he also used more cutters (23 pitches) than usual. He used fewer curveballs (13) than he did in his 99-win campaign against the Doosan Bears in Jamsil on April 11. His fastball topped out at 146 mph, and his control was excellent, with only 29 balls in play out of 98 pitches.

NC and Ryu were new to each other. Ryu signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 2012 season and made his way to the American Major Leagues, while NC broke into the first team in 2013 as a new club. While NC has grown into a solid team with top-tier power, winning the 2020 season, Ryu was an unknown quantity. Ryu had never stepped on the mound at Changwon NC Park before, so he took the mound himself on the 16th to get a feel for it.

NC countered Ryu with its best lineup. Park Min-woo (second baseman), Seo Ho-cheol (third baseman), Son As-seob (designated hitter), Kwon Hee-dong (left fielder), Park Gun-woo (right fielder), Kim Sung-wook (center fielder), Kim Hyung-joon (catcher), Oh Young-soo (first baseman), and Kim Joo-won (shortstop) started the game.

Before the game, Park said, “He’s a great player. He’s a major league player. If we get a hit, it’s a real honor. He’s that good.” “I analyzed him, but I couldn’t hit him. It was like he was throwing while looking at the borderline. When I tried to throw the ball, I could see the borderline, so even Yang Ji-hyung, who is the best hitter, was surprised. In the past, I heard that when there were no runners on base, he would throw it slowly to induce ground balls, but in the last game, there were no such pitches at all. He threw 148 kilometers, 150 kilometers, so it was definitely different,” he said, adding that it would not be easy to catch him.

The excitement of meeting the best pitcher in Korea was mixed with apprehension. “I’d like to see a major league player pitch,” Park said. His curveball has a really big angle, he has a good cutter and changeup, and he throws both inside and outside pitches, so it’s not easy. Yang Hyun-jong (KIA), Kim Kwang-hyun (SSG), and Ryu Hyun-jin (SSG) represented Korea, so I think they’re really cool. I also think about how they keep the ball so well even though they’re older,” he said, expressing his admiration.

As expected, Ryu kept the NC batters in check early in the game. In the bottom of the third inning, he retired the next six batters in a row before leadoff hitter Kim Hyung-joon was hit by a fastball to center field. In the bottom of the inning, Kim struck out Oh Young-soo and Kim Joo-won before getting Park Min-woo to ground out to third base to end the inning.

After two innings, the NC batting order began to cope with Ryu’s pitches. In the bottom of the fourth inning, down 0-2, Seo Ho-cheol hit Ryu’s changeup low and away for a single to right-center, and Kwon Hee-dong drew a walk to put pressure on Ryu. With runners on first and second, Kim Sung-wook blasted a three-run homer to left-center to make it a 3-2 game. This was the moment when Ryu’s quest for 100 wins actually got tougher. With the count 1-1, a three-pitch cutter was high and in, but Kim’s bat caught it. It was Kim’s sixth home run of the season and Ryu’s first since returning to Korea.

Regarding the home run that rocked Ryu Hyun-jin, Kim said, “First of all, I think I was most happy that I was able to hit a come-from-behind home run when the 안전놀이터 team was losing, rather than thinking that it was good or bad because I hit a home run against Ryu Hyun-jin. He threw a lot of changeups outside in the first at-bat, so I definitely felt that I had a lot of good pitches, so I had a little bit of a feeling that I could play a little bit, so I had a little bit of a thought that one of the pitches was going to be a mistake, but I think I didn’t miss it and hit it.”

Still, Ryu was Ryu was Ryu. After giving up a home run to Kim Sung-wook, he shut down the NC bats again. From Kim Hyung-joon with two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning to Kwon Hee-dong with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning, seven consecutive batters reached base, setting the stage for his seven-inning stint.

In the bottom of the seventh, Ryu walked leadoff hitter Park Gun-woo on a straight ball, but he got Kim Sung-wook back on base with a pitcher’s choice. Two batters later, he got Kim Hyung-joon to ground out to short to end the inning.

“I think I focused a little bit on the changeup, the fastball, and how to deal with the changeup,” Kim said of facing Ryu, “because we shared how the ball was coming. I must say it’s confusing. I think the line between a strike and a ball was a little bit really confusing. The first pitch is a strike, and the second pitch, obviously, I feel like it’s coming the same way, but when I look at it on the tablet, there’s about a ball missing. I felt like he was definitely a good pitcher.”

“I’ve been watching you a lot on TV since I was in school, and you’ve been a good pitcher since then, so we were all a little bit excited yesterday (Saturday). I felt like I wanted to get in (the batter’s box) and see the ball, and when I did, I think I realized why he pitched so well,” he added.

Hanwha tied the game at 3-3 in the top of the eighth inning, and Ryu escaped the loss. After Kim Tae-yeon led off with a single, Choi Jae-hoon grounded out to shortstop to put runners on first and second. Hwang Young-mook followed with a single to center to tie the game at one. With no more runs scored, Ryu’s quest for 100 wins would have to wait.

NC turned to the bullpen after Ryu went down. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Choi Jung-won’s quick feet and judgment stood out. Choi led off with a walk, and when Kim Joo-won laid down a sacrifice bunt, Choi quickly stole second base and raced to third. The third baseman didn’t miss the gap at third base. With the bases loaded, Park Min-woo hit a sacrifice fly to center field to win the game 4-3.

NC head coach Kang In-hwa said after the game, “The entire team had a great desire to win today (Nov. 17). Choi Jeong-won’s pinch-hitting and base running in the eighth inning was the decisive moment in the victory.”

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