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Cardinals' Kim Kwang-hyun at efficient best in impressive return from ailment

St. Louis Cardinals' starter Kim Kwang-hyun (Yonhap)
St. Louis Cardinals' starter Kim Kwang-hyun (Yonhap)

In his young major league career so far, the St. Louis Cardinals' South Korean starter Kim Kwang-hyun has been an efficient pitcher, someone who pitches to contact after soft contact without overextending himself.

And his latest start, against the Milwaukee Brewers in Milwaukee on Monday (local time), was the perfect encapsulation of qualities that have made Kim such a reliable starter in 2020.

Kim held the Brewers to three hits over seven shutout innings, while striking out six. Both the innings total and strikeouts were his new season highs, as was his pitch total of 87. Kim settled for a no-decision in a 2-1, extra-inning loss in the opening game of a doubleheader.

Kim, who began the season as the closer, remained at 2-0, and his ERA is now a miniscule 0.63. As a starter, Kim has an incredible 0.33 ERA over 27 2/3 innings covering five outings. He hasn't allowed an earned run in 24 straight innings.

Kim was making his first start since Sept. 1. He was hospitalized for a kidney ailment in Chicago three days after that outing and was placed on the 10-day injured list, retroactive to Sept. 2.

With another scoreless start in the books, Kim proved that he's just fine, thank you very much, health-wise. Asked about his physical condition in his postgame Zoom call, Kim said in English, "Don't worry."

Then switching back to his native language, Kim said, "I am confident with my health. Unless I suffer an unexpected injury, I should have no health problems whatsoever. I didn't feel any discomfort on the mound."

The left-hander looked a bit rusty in the first frame, giving up a one-out double to Christian Yelich and falling behind each of the first four batters he faced.

But in the second, Kim only needed seven pitches to sit down three straight batters. It was one of three innings in which Kim retired the side in order in under 10 pitches.

The most important of them came in the seventh, Kim's final inning of work. Through six frames, he was sitting at 81 pitches, four shy from his season high, and he was going through the Brewers' order for the third time, albeit with the bottom three hitters due up. In this day and age of advanced statistical analysis, teams are increasingly reluctant to expose their starters for a third time through a lineup, based on how their numbers get progressively worse as opposing hitters see them more often within a game. Complete games are all but extinct.

The game was still 0-0, and because it was the first game of a seven-inning doubleheader, Kim had more than done his part as a starter with six shutout innings. It seemed to be a big ask for a pitcher who'd just recovered from a kidney ailment to go another inning.

But there Kim was to start the seventh, and he got his three outs on just six pitches.

The Brewers also helped out Kim by swinging early in the count and hitting into easy outs. Four times, a Milwaukee hitter swung on the first pitch. The results: two groundouts and two flyouts.

Prior to this contest, Kim had used his four-seam fastball about 45 percent of the time. He doubled down on that approach, throwing it 52 percent (45 out of 87 pitches) against the Brewers.

And that was with good reason, too. Kim held opponents to just a .139 batting average with his fastball, the fourth-lowest mark in the majors, and the Brewers had the worst batting average against fastballs with .227.

Four of Kim's six strikeouts were with the trusted four-seamer.

Kim is only averaging 90 miles per hour with his fastball, putting him in the 14th percentile in the majors. But it's not so much the velocity but the location with Kim. In the fourth, with runners at first and second, Kim jammed Luis Urias with an 88 mph fastball and got him to hit a soft grounder to third on a broken bat.

Kim said pitching coach Mike Maddux had told him the Brewers' hitters had been struggling with inside fastballs, and he made sure to stick to his approach.

"There was some weak contact, and some of the bats broke as well," Kim said. "Nothing special. Just following the game plan."

The biggest strikeout, though, came with a slider. In the bottom third, Avisail Garcia hit a two-out double, and Yelich, he of the first-inning double, stepped up to the plate.

The 2018 National League MVP is mired in an awful seasonlong slump -- he came in batting just .199 in 42 games -- but he still presented a threat with a man in scoring position. Kim fell behind 2-0, but then threw two straight fastballs to even the count. It set up an 87 mph slider to the outside corner that Yelich swung on and missed. (Yonhap)