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‘9 wins in 3 years → out of the starting lineup race’

Jong-hoon Park, his pride intact: “I need to get back to the good times”

A former submarine pitcher who represented his team and league is confident of getting his honor back. Jong-hoon Park (SSG Rangers) is one of them.

Drafted by SK (now SSG) with the ninth pick in the second round of the 2010 rookie draft, Jong-hoon began to receive more opportunities in 2015 and posted back-to-back double-digit win seasons in 2017 (12 wins) and 2018 (14 wins). He continued his upward trend in 2019 and 2020.

The crisis came on May 28, 2021, against the Daejeon Hanwha Eagles. He complained of pain while pitching, and his season ended prematurely in June when he went under the knife. His final record for the year was 4-2 with a 2.82 ERA in nine games and 54 1/3 innings pitched. He hadn’t pitched fewer innings in a season since 2016, when he began working in the rotation full-time.

In December 2021, while his rehabilitation was still in full swing, Jong-hoon signed a five-year, $6.5 billion non-free agent contract with SSG. By signing alongside Moon Seung-won (5 years, 5.5 billion won) and Han Yoo-seom (5 years, 6 billion won), the team not only relieved him of contract pressure, but also created an environment where he could focus on his rehabilitation.

More than a year passed, and on July 31, 2022, Jong-hoon made his debut against the Gwangju KIA Tigers. He seemed to recapture his best form, going seven innings twice, and in the Korean Series against the Kiwoom Heroes that year, he pitched three and two-thirds innings of no-hit ball, striking out four and walking none to help his team win the title.

However, despite the time that has passed since his return, Park hasn’t quite gotten back on track, going 2-6 with a 6.19 ERA in 18 games and 80 innings last year. The ace, who had a spot in the starting lineup, was pushed out of contention and didn’t help the team much until the end of the season.

More than anyone else, Jong-hoon Park regretted the time since his return from injury. “Since I joined the team, I’ve been hearing about my pitching every time, and I think I need to prepare more,” Jong-hoon told reporters at the Incheon SSG Landers Field on March 3. I don’t think I’ve ever had a season where I couldn’t play baseball like this. I think this is the bottom,” he said, “I need to go back to the good times. I believe I can do better and I think it will work out. I didn’t believe in myself even when I practiced, but I’m going to believe in what I practiced.”

In November of last year, it was reported that Jong-hoon was removed from the KBO Secondary Draft Protection List. As a result, Jong-hoon wore the SSG uniform again this year, but he had to reflect on his lack of trust in the team.

“When I first heard (the news), I thought, ‘What’s going on?’ I also thought, ‘Is this real?’ But after a while, I thought about it and realized that honestly, a player speaks with his performance, and we shouldn’t let this happen. “In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t go to another team. I would have been really depressed. I didn’t want to leave the team,” he reflected.

Jong-hoon Park is approaching the off-season with a different mindset than ever before. “I was originally in the low-to-mid 80s, but in the last three years I’ve been bulking up to 100 kilograms, and I’ve been focusing more on strength. I’ve been working on my strength for two years and it hasn’t paid off, so I have to go back to it.”

“Honestly, last year and the year before, I was working out on Mondays without rest, and I wasn’t spending time with my family. Now that I spend a lot of time with my family, I feel more relaxed and better (psychologically), and my body is lighter,” he said, adding, “I eat normally during the day and eat raw foods (like carrots) at night. I lose 3-4 kilograms a week. I’m still exercising, but I’m eating in moderation, so I’m losing weight,” he smiles.

What are his thoughts on new systems like ABS (automatic ball judgment system) and limiting the number of pitches? “In the last two years, a lot of high curveballs have been called balls even though they’re in the strike zone, so I think there’s a little bit of an advantage,” Park said, “but I don’t think it matters now. You have to throw it down the middle. Similarly, the ball didn’t go anywhere,” he reflected.

“It’s nice to have the limitations. I’m a fastball pitcher, and there were times when I was throwing the ball to the batter. I was thinking a lot about what to do because I was allowing a lot of stolen bases, but after talking to my brothers, I realized that it would be easier to prepare for those things in advance.”

Jong-hoon, who is on a personal training schedule, will depart for the United States on the 10th to work out with Choo Shin-soo and Ha Jae-hoon in Texas before traveling to Florida, SSG’s spring training location. “I want to throw the ball quickly in a warm place, and when I went to (Chu) Shin-soo’s house last year, I thought I was really ready, and the workout environment was good,” Jong-hoon said. “In the first season, Shin-soo asked me to come to the United States, and when I said I would go at the beginning of the season, he said he was really going to come, so I got an invitation. It’s better to work out with him than to do it alone. There’s also the issue of jet lag,” he said.

Now it’s just a matter of showing the results. “If I play a full season without skipping the rotation, I’ll think, ‘Now I’m going to get my honor back.’ I was angry and disappointed in myself because of the picture of skipping the rotation and being delayed in the batting order. As a first-team starter, I think that’s the first thing rather than the number of wins,” Jong-hoon vowed.

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