David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991. Show More
LOS ANGELES - The question was inevitable come October, and the timing could not have been worse.
With the Dodgers struggling for a foothold in this NLCS and going up against Adam Wainwright in Monday night's Game 3, the idea that a long debut season may be taking a toll on Hyun-Jin Ryu, the South Korean rookie, had to be unsettling.
It's hardly a new concept. Any pitcher making the transition from the professional leagues in Japan or Korea faces numerous adjustments, from the slicker feel of the baseballs over here to the frequency of a starter's use.
And that's just on the field. The different lifestyle also has to be taken into account, be it diet, training routines or trying to feel at home in unfamiliar surroundings.
The Mets had varying degrees of success with Jae Seo, another South Korean pitcher, and the Yankees' track record of assimilating Japanese rookie pitchers has not worked out too well. The late Hideki Irabu had a turbulent stay in the Bronx and Kei Igawa surely wished he never signed with them in the first place.
Ryu, however, has been a great match with the Dodgers, who first paid a $25.7-million posting fee to his KBO team, the Hanwha Eagles, and then signed him to a six-year, $36- million contract. They were rewarded with a stellar debut as Ryu went 14-8 with a 3.00 ERA in 30 starts, a total of 192 innings.
That last category can be worrisome for a team that qualifies for the playoffs. Rather than get an opportunity to recharge, a rookie pitcher is thrust into the most pressure-packed assignments of his season at a time when his body is feeling the cumulative effect of those 30 starts.
It certainly would be a convenient excuse for what happened to Ryu in the Division Series against the Braves. He allowed four runs and six hits in three innings in Game 3, but the Dodgers bailed him out in a 13-6 victory.
Not exactly a confidence-builder entering Monday night with Ryu up next and L.A. in an 0-2 hole, so fatigue predictably entered into the conversation.
"I feel fine," Ryu -- who three-hit the Cardinals through seven scoreless innings in Game 3 -- said through an interpreter. "If anything, I actually feel pretty good. I feel really strong. I really don't think it's a matter of how long I've been pitching, but it's about the pitch count and the innings I've pitched."
Ryu, 26, did shoulder a sizable workload during his KBO career. Counting the playoffs, the World Baseball Classic and other Asian tournaments, he averaged more than 190 innings during his seven years in South Korea. In 2006 and 2007, he racked up 224 and 222 innings, respectively.
By comparison, CC Sabathia has averaged 227 innings over 13 years, reaching a career-high 253 in 2008 at the age of 28.
At 6-7, 290 pounds, Sabathia has a frame that can handle it, even if he seemed to wear down this season. Ryu, at 6-2, 255 pounds, hardly is fragile. But like anything else, it's what a pitcher is used to, and this season had to be a feeling-out process for the newcomer.
At this stage in October, however, the Dodgers have to think more selfishly about his development. "If the same thing happened as his last time out, we'd change [him] fast," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said before Ryu's Game 3 start. "Really, at this point, we can't sit here and be patient."
The Dodgers understand it's part of the package with a rookie, just as it was for the Rangers last October with Yu Darvish. And could be for the Yankees or whatever team winds up acquiring Masahiro Tanaka if he indeed is posted by the Rakuten Eagles next month, as expected.
Tanaka finished 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA during the regular season for Rakuten. He made 26 starts for a total of 212 innings.
In Japan and Korea, starters are expected to pitch once a week, as opposed to every fifth day here in the States. While that doesn't seem like a huge ordeal, it adds up over six months, and especially by the time October arrives.