In this USA Today Sports via Reuters, Choi Ji-man of the Tampa Bay Rays (C) is greeted by teammates in the dugout after scoring a run against the Toronto Blue Jays in the top of the ninth inning of a Major League Baseball regular season game at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Florida, on Sunday. (Reuters-Yonhap)
It was a battle within a battle, as Toronto Blue Jays' ace Ryu Hyun-jin went up against fellow South Korean, Tampa Bay Rays' first baseman Choi Ji-man, for the first time in their major league careers.
The Rays took the game 6-4 at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Florida, on Sunday (local time). But the all-Korean pitcher-batter duel between Ryu and Choi, both graduates of Dongsan High School in Incheon, 40 kilometers west of Seoul, ended in the pitcher's favor.
Ryu got Choi to ground out in his first time up in the second inning. Choi hit a towering double off the top of the left-field wall in the fourth inning but lost his RBI when Mike Brosseau, the runner at first on the play, got thrown out at home following a perfect relay.
In the sixth, Ryu struck out Choi with a fastball clocked at 91.6 mph, the hardest pitch he threw in the game.
"I am always happy to see Korean players go up against each other in the majors," Ryu said in his postgame Zoom session. "I retired him a couple of times, and he also got a hit off me. It was a fun game."
Ryu and Choi weren't teammates in high school, as they were four years apart. Ryu began his professional career in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) in 2006 and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in late 2012. He joined the Blue Jays via free agency in December 2019.
Choi didn't play in the KBO, as he signed with the Seattle Mariners out of high school in July 2009. He bounced around multiple organizations before finding his home with the Rays in 2018.
And though the Jays and the Rays are frequent opponents as American League East division rivals, Choi hadn't faced Ryu until this game because Choi, who bats left-handed, doesn't often face southpaws like Ryu.
Choi missed the early portion of this season following knee surgery in spring training and has been on fire since his belated season debut. He's batting .400/.500/.760 with two home runs and eight RBIs in seven games this season.
"Ji-man has become a solid hitter," Ryu said. "He's doing well for himself in the majors."
Ryu had previously faced three South Korean hitters in the majors: former Texas Rangers outfielder Choo Shin-soo, ex-Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Kang Jung-ho and one-time San Francisco Giant Hwang Jae-gyun. Only Kang managed a hit against Ryu, and it was a single. Choi is the first Korean hitter to get an extra-base hit off the lefty.
Asked if he had any special feelings going up against Choi compared to the others, Ryu said: "Not really. I think I made all the pitches that I wanted to make in those three at-bats."
The Jays' fifth consecutive loss couldn't have been as fun for Ryu, who said he tried to do his part by going back out for the seventh inning when manager Charlie Montoyo only asked for six innings from him.
"I had more gas left in my tank, and our bullpen had thrown a lot of innings lately," Ryu said. "So I told (Montoyo) I could go another inning. He said I should face three more hitters in the seventh and that'd be it."
Ryu ended up making 107 pitches, the most he's thrown in a Blue Jays uniform. It topped his previous season high of 100 pitches from last Wednesday against the Boston Red Sox.
Ryu, at 34 with a checkered injury history, dispelled concerns about fatigue.
"I feel stronger this year than last year," Ryu said. "This year, I was able to have proper preparation in spring training (compared to last year's camp disrupted by COVID-19). I have no issues physically, whatsoever."
As for the Jays' current skid, Ryu said: "Whether it's pitchers or position players, we're all ready to battle every day. I think we can turn things around soon." (Yonhap)