ST. LOUIS -- When Kwang Hyun Kim signed with the Cardinals this past December, he always stated his goal was to be a starter. He’d pitch whenver they needed him, but he preferred to be in the rotation.
Eight months and plenty of obstacles later, the 32-year-old Kim achieved a goal he said he’s been dreaming about since he was a kid: He earned his first win for a Major League Baseball team.
Kim dazzled for six innings in the Cardinals’ 3-0 win over the Reds on Saturday night at Busch Stadium. With a snappy pace that led to a game time of 2 hours, 15 minutes, the left-hander allowed only three hits, struck out three and issued no walks.
The shutout was preserved by St. Louis' bullpen, including Giovanny Gallegos’ 1 1/3 hitless innings for the save, and backed by Harrison Bader’s offensive production. A day after Bader made a costly error that contributed to a loss, he delivered on his comments that he “flushes every negative” by hitting his first homer of the season in a 2-for-3 night.
“This is something that I’ve dreamed about since I was a child,” Kim said through an interpreter. “It’s been a long time, but I made my dream come true. It’s one of the nights I can’t forget.”
As the world deals with the changes that the coronavirus pandemic has brought, Kim has done it in a new country, on a new team and without his family by his side. He moved to St. Louis shortly after baseball suspended Spring Training in March, and at one point during the 3 1/2-month shutdown, he considered going home to Korea because he didn’t know when baseball would return. But Kim stayed, hoping to still be able to pitch this year.
When that time came, the Cardinals moved Kim to the bullpen to be their closer. He was fine with the move; he said he’d do whatever the team needed. He notched a save on Opening Day -- and a week later, the Cardinals went into quarantine as they dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak. When they returned for workouts, Kim was moved to the rotation.
Two days later, the Cardinals were in quarantine again for another week.
“He’s a take it as it comes kind of guy,” manager Mike Shildt said. “He’s going to compete, regardless when and where you pitch him, for the team, and you just have a lot of respect for a guy that has that team mentality of, 'Wherever you need me, however you need me, I’m going to be available and I’m going to get it done.'”
Kim got it done Saturday. The only Reds batter to reach second base was left fielder Jesse Winker, who hit a one-out double in the fifth. But Kim got Curt Casali to line out to third baseman Matt Carpenter, then struck out Freddy Galvis looking at an 84 mph slider.
That slider kept Reds hitters off-balance, in part because of its velocity. Kim threw one at 78 mph. Another reached 84 mph. He struck out Joey Votto looking with an elevated, 80 mph slider for the final out of the third.
“We talk about velocity fiends, and that’s a big part of it, the gas that guys throw now," Shildt said. “But being able to change speeds is important. Disrupts guys’ timing, gets guys in between, and he’s got the ability to do that to righties and lefties and work both sides of the plate up and down. He’s a pitch-maker. It’s the art of pitching.”
Working at a fast tempo that kept the defense engaged, Kim threw 83 pitches, 55 for strikes. In his previous outing, he was on a pitch limit, throwing 57 in 3 2/3 innings against the Cubs, as it was his first start of the year and his first game after the Cardinals' layoff. However, he had hoped to go deeper with that restriction.
Even on Saturday, Kim was a tough self-critic, saying that he was glad he didn’t have any walks, but that he didn’t like the full counts he faced and that he wants to be more aggressive next time.
Of the 21 batters Kim faced, only three went to full counts.
“He’s been awesome,” said shortstop Tommy Edman, who had a two-run single. “To have his first year over here in the United States, and to have this really weird year where nothing is normal, and moving around in his role, to start as a closer and being built up to be a starter, to keep throwing as well as he has, it’s just incredible. You’ve got to tip your cap to him.”