The Los Angeles Dodgers are about to find out if their $36 million investment in Hyun-Jin Ryu pays off in the postseason.
The 26-year-old rookie pitcher from South Korea will start Sunday night in the Dodgers’ first home playoff game since 2009. Los Angeles is looking to take control of the best-of-five National League division series after splitting the first two games in Atlanta.
The Braves are turning to their own rookie, 22-year-old Julio Teheran.
Ryu isn’t a typical rookie, having brought a wealth of experience from his native country when he signed with the Dodgers last winter. Teheran more accurately fits the description, with just four major league starts under his belt before this season.
Both the left-handed Ryu and right-handed Teheran went 14-8 during the regular season.
Teheran will be facing the Dodgers for the first time. Ryu made two regular-season starts against the Braves, both no-decisions. He gave up one run in 7 2/3 innings the last time he faced Atlanta on June 7.
Ryu threw a bullpen session Friday in Atlanta, something he rarely did during the regular season. He hasn’t pitched since Sept. 29.
”Typically when I rest longer than normal, I always squeeze in a bullpen just to make sure that my body is responding the way I want it to,” he said Saturday through a translator.
Ryu drew an audience for the session that included manager Don Mattingly, and Stan Conte and Dr. Neal ElAttrache of the team’s medical staff. Ryu missed a turn in early September because of a back ailment and went 2-5 with a 3.30 ERA over his final seven starts.
But Mattingly said there were no concerns about Ryu’s health.
”He’s been pitching big all year long,” Mattingly said. ”He’s able to exploit anybody that we want.”
The Dodgers signed Ryu to a six-year deal, making him the first player to go from the Korean Baseball Organization to the major leagues. They landed him after bidding $25.7 million to win exclusive negotiating rights with him. Besides his seven seasons in the KBO, he pitched in the 2009 World Baseball Classic at Dodger Stadium as a reliever.
Ryu has the support of ace Clayton Kershaw, who pitched the Dodgers to a 6-1 victory in the series opener.
”We don’t consider him a rookie,” Kershaw said. ”The way he carries himself every day, we’re really not worried about composure or the adrenaline getting to him, or anything like that. He has such a great feel for his four pitches.”
A.J. Ellis has caught Ryu all season long, with Ryu learning enough English to communicate during games.
”He never gets frazzled or out of sorts,” Ellis said. ”He’s a guy who thrives in the big moment. This is definitely not going to be the biggest game he’s ever pitched.”
It may be among the most watched, though, because Game 3 will be seen in South Korea.
”It’s a huge motivation to know that an entire country’s going to be watching the game,” Ryu said. ”But equally important is the fans here at Dodger Stadium and the Korean community here. I understand there are going to be a lot of them coming out tomorrow, but it’s a big encouragement for me.”
Like Mattingly with Ryu, Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez won’t approach Teheran any differently just because he’s making his postseason debut.
”I wouldn’t even bring it up or anything,” Gonzalez said. ”He’s going to go out and he’s going to compete like he always has. If he gets his fastball command and throws the secondary pitches, he’s going to be OK.”
Teheran, who is from Colombia, came into his own this season after fleeting appearances in the majors the previous two years. He had a 2.97 ERA in the second half for the Braves, the only division winner to have a losing road record at 40-41.
”I feel really excited about this game,” Teheran said. ”I never thought that I’m going to be in this situation this year in my first year. But I’m just trying to calm down myself and be focused on the game and try to do the same thing I’ve been doing.”