GLENDALE, Ariz. — Ryu Hyun-Jin has lost about 15 pounds since he reported to his first spring training with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by a reporter who used a common Korean phrase to say the left-hander’s face was half its previous size.
Ryu smiled and grimaced, realizing he still has a few pounds to lose. By any other measure, his new career is off to a promising start.
Ryu debuted in Dodger blue for their second game of Cactus League play Sunday, allowing a triple and getting a strikeout during one scoreless inning of work against the Chicago White Sox.
“Considering it was my first official game, I’m pretty satisfied,” Ryu said through a translator. “I’m still very early in the learning stage, so I’m just trusting what they’re telling me.”
Ryu threw just 16 pitches in the third inning, and he’s keeping the proper perspective on February games. After working on his breaking stuff with Dodgers Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax last week, Ryu’s only curveball against the White Sox got smacked into the right-field corner by Dewayne Wise.
“(Koufax) was teaching me how to throw a curveball, but I guess it didn’t really work today,” Ryu said with a smile. “But I’ll continue practicing.”
Ryu agreed to a $36 million, six-year deal with Los Angeles in December, becoming the first player to move straight from Korea’s top league to the majors. He was a seven-time All-Star and a five-time strikeout leader in Korea, but embraced the move stateside when the free-spending Dodgers outbid several suitors for his services.
Ryu is skipping the World Baseball Classic to get ready for his major league debut, and the 25-year-old appears comfortable in the Dodgers’ clubhouse with his new teammates. He was mildly surprised at Camelback Ranch when the baseballs were slicker and the mound a bit firmer than he expected, but he handled the small differences with aplomb.
“He looks good,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “For me, I know in the eye test, he may look like a bigger guy, but he moves good. He’s like a (Jonathan) Broxton. Brox was huge, but he moved like a guy whose body was underneath him. He wasn’t like a slug. … You can’t help it. Just going through the day and doing our stuff, you’re going to get in shape. We’re not really worried about that.”
Ryu is dedicated to his weight loss, although he says he’s found plenty of good Korean restaurants in the U.S. so far.
“I’m working on my diet,” he said. “The toughest thing is at nighttime. When I get hungry, I just have to force myself to sleep.”
While Ryu wants to lose a few more pounds, he wants to keep his impressive fastball. He already knows he’ll need it against the majors’ top hitters, as evidenced by Wise’s drive in his debut.
“Obviously, they’re much stronger than the players I’m used to pitching to,” Ryu said. “If you miss the strike zone just by a little bit, it can cause serious problems, but my job is to adjust to that and pitch accordingly.”
Although catcher Tim Federowicz’s Korean is a whole lot worse than Ryu’s English, they’re working on teaching a few simple English phrases to Ryu for communication during games. They don’t expect they’ll need much: The Dodgers already appreciate Ryu’s brisk pace, veteran smarts and competitive nature.
“It was really good that he worked quickly like that,” Federowicz said. “He didn’t seem nervous at all. … I can tell he definitely knows how to make adjustments. His first fastball was up, but then his second was right back down. That’s how you can tell he’s a guy that’s going to handle the major leagues.”
Ryu is one of at least six solid candidates for the Dodgers’ final three rotation spots behind former Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Chad Billingsley, Josh Beckett, Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang also will get a chance to win a starting slot.
Los Angeles might need all of its extra-long spring training to decide on a rotation. Mattingly said Ryu will get his first start on Friday, pitching up to three innings in one of the Dodgers’ two split-squad games. It’s just the next step in Ryu’s determination to succeed on his new continent.
“It could take some time,” he said. “But I’m pretty confident I’ll be able to adjust within a year or two.”