Rookie sensation homers off 2 ex-MLB pitchers, steals thunder in star’s return

INCHEON-- With his lightning-quick swing of the bat, LG Twins' rookie phenom Song Chan-eui stole a former major league pitcher's thunder in his much-anticipated return to the South Korean league Tuesday.

Song's solo blast off Kim Kwang-hyun of the SSG Landers in the sixth inning of a Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) preseason game wasn't even his first against an ex-big league pitcher in this game. In the top of the second inning, Song had gone deep off Landers' starter Ivan Nova, a former 16-game winner for the New York Yankees.

Behind those two solo shots, the Twins won the game 4-2 at Incheon SSG Landers Field in Incheon, 40 kilometers west of Seoul.

Song, getting his first extended opportunity to crack the everyday lineup at age 23, now leads the KBO with five home runs in the preseason. He has eight hits, five of which have left the yard and one of which has been a triple. Song has a ridiculous slugging percentage of 1.136 through seven games.

Song hit both of his Tuesday's home runs off pitches that clocked at 150 kilometers per hour (kph), a symbolic number in the KBO that separates power pitchers from wannabes. Think of the magical 100 miles per hour in the majors.

Against Nova, Song crushed a two-seam fastball over the outside corner and sent it 120 meters over the left-center wall.

Song then went up against Kim, who was making his preseason debut after reuniting with the Landers on March 8. The former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher had retired his first five batters, four via strikeouts, before taking on Song.

Kim dug deep and threw his hardest pitch of the game, a 150 kph four-seam fastball. But Song, clearly sitting on the pitch, jumped on that offering and drove it over the left field fence.

As Song rounded the bases, Kim wore an incredulous look on his face, as if to say, "Did he really hit that pitch?"

Song said after the game his preparations for each at-bat began once he reached the on-deck circle, and the early mental work led to such encouraging results.

"Both pitchers (Nova and Kim) throw hard, and they also have great breaking balls, and I knew I had to get my timing down perfectly," Song said. "I am really happy that all the work I did before the game paid off."

As for hitting the first-pitch fastball from Kim, Song said, "I always step into the box with an aggressive mindset. I wanted to swing the bat early, because I didn't want to get behind in the count against such a great pitcher."

Preseason numbers aren't always taken so seriously. This is the time of year when pitchers simply test their arsenal, even at the expense of giving up home runs. Raw hitters, like Song, will start getting a healthy dose of breaking balls and offspeed pitches once the regular season starts.

"I am going to have to adjust if I want to keep playing at this level," Song said. "I don't want to be a one-trick pony."

Song was drafted in 2017 but toiled in the minor league before fulfilling his mandatory military service. While in the army, Song found time to study KBO and major league hitters while also hitting the weights. He took a particular liking to Javier Baez, a two-time National League All-Star and the 2018 MVP runner-up for the Chicago Cubs, known for his "swing first, ask questions later" approach at the plate.

As for any inspiration in the KBO, Song said he wants to learn from "every one of my teammates here."

So far this preseason, Song has played at every infield position. He got the start at shortstop Tuesday.

He played mostly shortstop in high school, but his path to that position in the KBO is blocked by veteran Oh Ji-hwan, one of the KBO's top defensive shortstops. Song said he can also handle second base or any outfield position.

"It doesn't really matter where I play," Song said. "I think I am still trying to find my comfort zone on the field. But I am not in a situation where I can say I am going to settle down in this position or that position. I just want to do whatever I am asked to do."

Also during his time in the military, Song said he worked on his mental game.

When he was drafted, Song made headlines not necessarily for his potential but for being a nephew of the Twins' general manager at the time, Song Gu-hong. The player heard constant whispers about being a nepotistic draft pick, which he admitted affected his on-field performance.

"I tried to block out that noise, but it was difficult," the younger Song said. "I became too passive on the field. But after serving in the military, my mindset changed. I am the one in charge of my own career now. I am going to play with more confidence, and I don't want to have any regrets in the end."

While some prospects from the most recent rookie class have also turned heads this month, Song has been a particularly great story because of his "where did he come from?" angle. He's still pinching himself.

"This is the kind of moment I've dreamed about my whole life," Song said with a smile, speaking to over 20 reporters and a handful of TV cameras. "It has finally come true. I couldn't be happier."

Source: Yonhap News Agency