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Baseballs fly as MLB stars return to KBO

Hwang, Kim and Park have already started clocking up home runs
Mar 30,2018
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From left: Kim Hyun-soo of the LG Twins watches his first home run of the season. Park Byung-ho of the Nexen Heroes celebrates after hitting a home run. Hwang Jae-gyun of the KT Wiz watches his home run during a game on Sunday. [YONHAP]
The MLB boys are back in town.

This year the KBO promises to be especially exciting as the league welcomes back three former major leaguers - Hwang Jae-gyun left the San Francisco Giants to join the KT Wiz, Park Byung-ho left the Minnesota Twins and rejoined the Nexen Heroes, and Kim Hyun-soo, formerly of the Philadelphia Phillies and now at the LG Twins.

Hwang was the first to announce his return, signing a four-year deal with the Wiz at 8.8 billion won ($8.2 million) in November. As Hwang returned home with a disappointing record from the major league - a 0.154 batting average with one home run and five runs batted in (RBI) in 18 games - some critics felt that the Wiz had paid over the odds, giving Hwang a hefty big league premium despite his unimpressive performance.

But Hwang proved the critics wrong. Heading to the plate on Sunday as the Wiz were losing 0-7 against the Kia Tigers, Hwang hit a solo home run over the fence to score the Wiz’s only run of the game. The achievement was especially impressive as the slugger managed to steal a homer from Yang Hyeon-jong, the Tigers star pitcher that swept every MVP award last season.

The home run on Sunday was Hwang’s first in 539 days in the KBO, since he played for the Lotte Giants before leaving for the United States.

Then, on Tuesday, Hwang hit another solo home run against the SK Wyverns. As of Wednesday’s game Hwang has a batting average of 0.353 with four runs, six hits and four RBIs in four games as of 5 p.m. Thursday. Perhaps not such a bad return on the investment after all.

Shortly after Hwang announced his return Park made his move, returning to his former KBO team, the Heroes, despite still having two seasons remaining with the Minnesota Twins. Though he could have taken home another $6.5 million over the next two seasons including a $500,000 buyout option if he stayed, Park opted to rejoin the Heroes on a one year contract at 1.5 billion won for the good of his career.

Since Park will be 33-years-old when he becomes a free agent in 2020, playing full time in the KBO is more likely to raise his value as a free agent than if he continued to struggle in the United States for another two years.

Kim Hyun-soo was the last major league star to announce his return, returning to Jamsil Stadium where his baseball career first began, but this time LG colors. Kim’s 11.5 billion won four year contract made him the second highest paid free agent in KBO history after Lee Dae-ho of the Lotte Giants.

After a successful KBO career with the Doosan Bears, Kim joined the Baltimore Orioles in 2016. He had a successful debut season with a batting average of 0.302 but struggled in his second season, falling behind the Orioles’ starting lineup and eventually moving to the Phillies. Kim’s move to the Phillies didn’t make things any better, as he finished the season with a batting average of 0.230, four RBIs and zero home runs in 40 games.

The highly-anticipated return of Park and Kim - who both have more MLB experience than Hwang - was dampened somewhat when they failed to produce anything special during last weekend’s opening games.

It wasn’t until the season’s fourth game on Wednesday that the investment started to pay dividends, as both Park and Kim hit home runs while playing against each other at Gocheok Sky Dome in western Seoul.

Although the Twins won the game 9-3, the home run contest between Park and Kim ended in a dead heat, 1-1.

Park took first blood, stepping up to the plate in the third with the Twins already up 4-0, Park hit a two-run home run off of Im Chan-kyu’s change-up. This was Park’s first KBO home run in 908 days, leaving him with a batting average of 0.385 with two runs and two RBIs by the end of the game.

Kim responded in the eighth, hitting a two-run home run when the Twins were already up 7-3, knocking Ha Yeong-min’s fastball over the center fence to take the final score to 9-3. The home run was Kim’s first in the KBO in 906 days, two less than Park, leaving him with a batting average of 0.235 with two runs and three RBIs.

Wednesday’s game also marked the Twins first win of the season, having lost to the NC Dinos over the weekend and the Heroes on Tuesday.

BY KANG YOO-RIM [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]