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Veteran pitcher earns 1st win in 5 years in gutsy outing

By Yonhap

Published : May 24, 2023 - 10:05

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Doosan Bears starter Jang Won-jun pitches against the Samsung Lions during the top of the first inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul on Tuesday. (KBO) Doosan Bears starter Jang Won-jun pitches against the Samsung Lions during the top of the first inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul on Tuesday. (KBO)

Veteran pitcher Jang Won-jun needed 15 days to go from career win No. 128 to No. 129 in 2018. It then took the Doosan Bears left-hander five years to get to his 130th victory in the Korea Baseball Organization.

That long-awaited win came Tuesday night in a "turn-back-the-clock" performance against the Samsung Lions at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul. The 37-year-old allowed four runs on seven hits in five innings, but his Bears teammates gave him plenty of run support in a 7-5 victory. Jang struck out four and didn't walk anyone.

"As a starter, I obviously wanted to go at least five innings, but I wasn't going to force my way," said Jang, whose previous win was on May 5, 2018. "I was only thinking about leaving everything on the mound and not having any regrets until I got the hook."

Jang surrendered all four runs in the second inning with the Bears up 1-0. He then put up zeroes on the board in the next three frames while the Bears reclaimed their lead with a five-run third.

Jang was once a symbol of consistency in the KBO. In every season from 2008 to 2017, Jang won at least 10 games and pitched at least 155 innings, a streak unmatched by anyone in that stretch.

He was particularly effective from 2015 to 2017, while helping the Bears win Korean Series titles in the first two of those years and finish second in 2017. Jang went 41-27 with a 3.51 ERA during that three-year window, ranking third in ERA and fifth in wins in the league. He was a perfect 4-0 with a 2.44 ERA across three postseasons.

However, Jang has been hobbled by assorted injuries since 2018. After making 24 appearances in 2018, Jang was limited to six games in 2019 and two in 2020.

The Bears turned Jang into a reliever in 2021, though he only pitched in 18 2/3 innings and had a 6.75 ERA. He also spent more time in the minor league than in the KBO in 2022.

Jang's last start prior to Tuesday had come on Oct. 7, 2020, and he had last thrown at least five innings in a start on June 20, 2018.

He began the 2023 season in the minors. But injuries to two starters, Dylan File and Gwak Been, created a need for an extra starter in the Bears rotation. Manager Lee Seung-yuop went with the left-hander to begin the new week.

Jang, who'd made four starts in the minors this year, appreciated the opportunity.

"I wanted to stay aggressive, whether I got hit or not," Jang said. "I was grateful for the opportunity to keep pitching up here the past couple of years, but I kept thinking all along that I wanted to make at least one more start. I finally got that opportunity, and I didn't want to waste it."

Jang admitted to feeling extra nervous before Tuesday's outing, knowing he probably wouldn't have another chance if he pitched poorly.

"Thankfully, my teammates scored enough runs for the win," Jang said. "I no longer have any personal goals. I just want to keep pitching in a place where the team needs me. That's my role and my objective."

Looking back on his recent seasons, Jang said struggles had been as much mental as physical.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself. I kept rushing things in the minors because I wanted to help the big club as quickly as possible," Jang said. "I think that backfired on me and led to extended slumps. I kept getting hurt, and I kept trying to go back to my old mechanics even though they no longer suited my body."

Jang eventually found the right balance and has started relying more on his two-seam fastballs than his four-seamers.

"I've always thought that I would retire the moment I felt I could no longer handle hitters," Jang said. "And rather than walking guys and having regrets later, I'd rather keep attacking hitters, even if it means giving up home runs."

On Tuesday, Jang pitched to his trusted batterymate, Yang Eui-ji, who also caught the left-hander in Jang's previous win in May 2018.

Yang left the Bears in free agency after that year but returned last winter following four seasons with the NC Dinos.

"It's great to be back with Won-jun, just like the good old days," Yang said with a smile. "It's been such a long time. I barely remembered how he used to pitch, and we got a few signs mixed up. But he covered five innings, and we got the win. We couldn't have asked for more."

Yang also thanked manager Lee for having faith in the veteran starter.

"He asked me during the game what I thought about Won-jun's stuff. I told him, 'He looks fine to me,'" Yang said. "I am sure he contemplated making the pitching change but kept Won-jun in for five innings. Because of that, Won-jun should be able to prepare for the next outing feeling good about himself.

"He pitched really well today," Yang added. "Hopefully, I'll get to catch him up here for a long time." (Yonhap)