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Small changes lead to big success

In a matter of weeks, Chris Oxspring, a right-handed starter for the Lotte Giants, has gone from a scapegoat to one of the few bright spots for the struggling Korea Baseball Organization club.

The 35-year-old Australian got off to a rocky beginning on his second tour of duty in the top South Korean league.

In his first four starts of the season, Oxspring went 0-3 as he surrendered 14 earned runs and walked 14 batters in 19 innings. But in his last three starts, Oxspring has gone 3-0, having conceded just one earned run in 22 innings with six walks and 22 strikeouts.

The impressive turnaround culminated in his complete game, 3-0 shutout victory over the Kia Tigers on Tuesday, when he allowed just two hits and struck out 10.
Lotte’s Chris Oxspring (Yonhap News)
Lotte’s Chris Oxspring (Yonhap News)

In a telephone interview with Yonhap on Thursday, Oxspring said some small changes have contributed to such a big success of late.

“I was just talking to the pitching coach (former All-Star pitcher Chong Min-tae) a lot about small things, mechanically,” Oxspring said.

“And also (about) the approach to the game, like throwing more offspeed stuff earlier in the count. Guys look to hit fastballs in any location early in the count, and I am a lot more confident with throwing my offspeed stuff. It’s getting a lot better.”

Oxspring also said he and his catcher, Kang Min-ho, decided to use cut fastballs more often three starts ago, on April 25 against the SK Wyverns.

Oxspring recorded eight strikeouts in seven shutout innings, as the Giants prevailed 6-0. That was his first win of the season, and Oxspring hasn’t looked back since.

“I’ve been throwing my cut fastball a lot, which obviously has been the biggest contributor to success,” he said.

“Kang Min-ho said, ‘It’ll be a good pitch. We should try using it more and see what happens.’ That was the turning point. We used that a lot, and we’ve stuck with that.”

Oxspring blamed his inconsistency for the poor start.

“In the first four games, my control was really bad. I walked a lot of hitters,” he said. “You might get lucky every now and then. But if you pitch like that the whole game, you’re going to get beat up. I was very inconsistent with throwing strikes, and I was falling behind in counts all the time.”

This is Oxspring’s second stop in the KBO.

In 2007 and 2008, he pitched for the Seoul-based LG Twins, going 14-15 with a 3.71 ERA in 41 appearances. The well-traveled Australian has also pitched for the San Diego Padres in Major League Baseball, for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and for the Sydney Blue Sox in his native country.

Having lived in South Korea before, Oxspring said he hasn’t had to make too many adjustments off the field. He also learned how to read Korean during his previous stop, which he said has helped him a great deal so far.

On the field, however, Oxspring said he’s had to change his pitching style.

“(I throw) more offspeed stuff here, compared to what I would do when I played in the United States or Australia,” he said.

“Guys here hit fastballs really well. They take that kind of batting practice all the time. The adjustment for me this time around was to make sure I kept the ball down in the strike zone and change speed and location.”

In the complete game victory over the Tigers this week, Oxspring struck out hitters on a mix of fastballs and curves.

He reached 146 kilometers per hour with his fastball, and Oxspring, who turns 36 next Monday, said he feels as healthy as ever.

In 2009, Oxspring underwent two major operations: first to remove bone chips and a bone spur in his right elbow and then, only a month later, to repair his damaged elbow ligament, a procedure more commonly known as Tommy John surgery.

Undergoing Tommy John surgery often spelled the end of a pitcher’s career in the past, but more and more are coming back stronger than before. Oxspring has fallen in the latter group. He said he can throw as fast as he did about 10 years ago. (Yonhap News)
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