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Dodgers' Hyun-Jin Ryu turns them all into believers

South Korean rookie pitcher has shown confidence from the start, but it took awhile to earn it from others.

September 24, 2013|By Dylan Hernandez
  • South Korean pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu has proven to be a valuable part of the Dodgers' rotation since joining the organization in the offseason.
South Korean pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu has proven to be a valuable part of the… (Harry How / Getty Images )

SAN FRANCISCO — Catcher A.J. Ellis was alarmed when he first set eyes on Hyun-Jin Ryu in spring training.

This was the Clayton Kershaw of South Korea?

Whereas Kershaw reported to camp looking as if he was already in top shape, Ryu was noticeably overweight. When the Dodgers ran on the first day, Ryu finished far behind all of his teammates.

"This guy has to pick it up or this is going to be a failed experiment," Ellis thought at the time.

Ellis laughed as he recalled his initial impressions of Ryu. What was once a cause for concern is now a source of humor, as the addition of Ryu has turned out to be one of the smartest moves made by the Dodgers in the last year.

Ryu made the 29th start of his rookie season Tuesday, limiting the San Francisco Giants to one run in four hits over seven innings in the Dodgers' 2-1 victory at AT&T Park. He improved to 14-7 and lowered his earned-run average to 2.97, which has to surprise even some of the very people who pushed to sign him to a six-year, $36-million deal.

"I think it's surpassed my initial expectations," Ryu, through an interpreter, said of his season. "It's much better than I thought."

Along the way, Ryu has shown Ellis that he and Kershaw have more in common than being the best left-handed pitchers produced by their respective countries.

Like Kershaw, Ryu has demonstrated he can thrive under pressure.

Because of that, Ellis is looking forward to seeing how Ryu responds to pitching in October. Ryu figures to be the Dodgers' No. 3 or No. 4 starter in the playoffs.

"It's yin and yang between Clayton and Ryu," Ellis said. " But both get pretty solid results."

What was clear to everyone from the first day of camp was Ryu carried himself like a star. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt compared his demeanor to that of a young Fernando Valenzuela.

"He's got a confidence about him," Manager Don Mattingly said. "You could tell he believes in himself. You like when you see guys like that."

Ellis pointed out that when Japanese right-hander Hiroki Kuroda joined the Dodgers in 2008, he immediately adopted American training methods.

Ryu, on the other hand, stuck with his throwing program from seven seasons in South Korea, meaning he barely threw. Unlike other pitchers, Ryu didn't throw off the mound between games. And when Ryu threw in games, Ellis rarely saw anything special.

There were whispers in camp Dodgers President Stan Kasten was the driving force behind the signing of Ryu. That raised suspicions among some in the organization the move was motivated more by the Dodgers' desire to reach Los Angeles' sizable Korean and Korean American population than by what Ryu could do on the field.

Even club officials who defended Ryu's signing set modest goals for the 26-year-old rookie. If Ryu could remain in the rotation for the entire season, they said, his season should be considered a success.

Ellis had his first inkling Ryu could be capable of more than that when he made his final start of spring training. Ryu tossed four perfect innings against the Angels at Angel Stadium.

"That was what we thought was the best lineup in the American League and he dominated them," Ellis said.

The game was also Ryu's first in a major league stadium, leading Ellis to wonder whether Ryu could be the type of pitcher who performed better when under greater scrutiny.

There were probably never more eyes on Ryu than there were in his first meeting against fellow South Korean Shin-Soo Choo and the Cincinnati Reds on July 27. In front of a capacity crowd at Dodger Stadium that included pop star Psy and 90 credentialed reporters from his homeland, Ryu held the Reds to one run and two hits over seven innings.

"He's young, but he pitches like a veteran who understands how to control himself, control his emotions," Ellis said. "There's a calmness. There's an attitude."

Ryu, who used to pitch once a week in his native South Korea, has looked fatigued at times in the second half of the season.

The Dodgers have tried to accommodate him by offering him extra days of rest when possible.

This month, Ryu skipped a start with a back issue that was described as minor.

An extra day off appears to serve Ryu well.

On regular four days' rest, Ryu is 5-3 with a 3.20 ERA. On five days' rest, he is 7-1 with a 2.12 ERA.

Ryu is ready for the postseason. "I feel really good," he said. "The best thing is that I don't have injuries. I feel pretty confident."

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Twitter: @dylanohernandez

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