Kim shines in first start in front of Cards fans

April 24th, 2021

The Cardinals signed on Dec. 17, 2019, a marquee signing at the time and a welcoming to the United States to a player that eventually became central to their success in ’20.

Four hundred ninety-three days passed before Kim could pitch in front of fans at Busch Stadium, but he saved plenty for the occasion.

Kim coasted through 5 2/3 one-run innings in the Cardinals’ ultimately nail-biting 5-4 win over the Reds in front of the St. Louis faithful on Friday night, striking out a career-high eight batters and finally putting a milestone stamp on a whirlwind of a few years for the Korean left-hander.

Not even a ninth inning filled with defensive miscues, loaded bases and edges of seats occupied -- a frame started by Jordan Hicks and closed out by Alex Reyes -- could damper Kim’s eventual victory.

“Before coming here I knew Cardinals fans were passionate about baseball, they love their players,” Kim said through interpreter Craig Choi. “And I could see that today.”

Because of the pandemic, Kim was forced to pitch through the 2020 season -- when he posted a remarkable 1.62 ERA across eight games -- without fans in the stands and without his family stateside. He’s doing the latter again in 2021, and this year he is also coming off a back injury that derailed him in both Spring Training and the start of the season.

The Cardinals entered the spring confident Kim could be the stopper he was in 2020 and serve a role as a solid and steady middle-rotation arm. The '21 rotation has already hit bumps and nicks along the way, but Friday's performance, buoyed by a new-look offense on the back of Yadier Molina (who exited early with right foot soreness), was a return to form for the version of Kim the Cardinals believe he can be for the long haul.

“I have this kind of stress going on that I have to be good,” Kim said. “Even though last year was a short season, it was a successful season. … This season, I want to do well as last season, so that made me pitch harder, and my expectations were high during Spring Training. I think that was the reason I kind of struggled.”

The struggles Kim is alluding to include the inability to make it out of the first inning in each of his first two spring starts before being sidelined by the back injury.

But a crisp eight strikeouts on Friday night were a sign that Kim may be fully back into his groove.

“It’s a testament, if you know him, working ahead, expanding the plate and also throwing his secondary pitches where he wanted," said manager Mike Shildt. “He had a good plan, but a plan is only as good as [its] execution.”

Kim hit another milestone on Friday. Not needing to bat last season with the universal designated hitter in play, he picked up the first base hit of his professional career with a swinging bunt down the third-base line, sprinting a brisk 28.2 feet/second to make it safely to first base.

Reds first baseman Joey Votto collected the baseball and made sure it found the home dugout.

“Congratulations on your first hit,” Kim said with a smile -- and in English -- was the message from Votto that garnered a wide smile. It was his first hit since high school, after all.

Love was a little harder to come by with Sonny Gray, though.

“It was not a clean hit; sorry to Sonny Gray,” Kim said. “And I noticed next time at bat he actually kind of smiled at me and threw four breaking balls.”

As Kim was dealing, hitting and scooting, the Cardinals on Friday also hit the time threshold for being able to relax some of their pandemic safety protocols, Shildt said, more than two weeks out from when at least 85 percent of their traveling party had received vaccines, in accordance with the 2021 Operations Manual for fully vaccinated Tier 1 Individuals. It resembled part of the first steps that the Cardinals and the sporting world en masse are taking as they hope to return to normal in the not-too-distant future. 

So count Kim, who’s had to sacrifice immensely to reach his Major League aspirations -- a journey that hit some highs on Friday -- chief among those who can’t wait for normal to resume.

“I know that as the season goes on, there will be more fans in the stands,” the left-hander said. “I’m hoping for that, and I'm really excited to be pitching in front of more fans as we get deeper into the season.”