(LEAD) Park Byung-ho widens gap on KBO tour rankings in revival season

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(ATTN: STAT FIXES, ADDDS details in para 5)
By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, May 18 (Yonhap) — Someone apparently forgot to tell Park Byung-ho that it’s not 2015 anymore.

Park, the veteran KT Wiz slugger, leads the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) in home runs this year with 13 after 37 games, with his latest bombshell arriving Tuesday night. Park is five ahead of Lotte Giants’ Han Dong-hui and LG Twins’ Kim Hyun-soo.

That’s not all: Park also leads with a .606 slugging percentage, second with 35 RBI and fifth with a .951 on base plus slugging percentage (OPS).

This all comes from someone who will turn 36 in two months and who many experts say was washed two years ago.

About the year 2015 was the last time Park hit 50 homers in a season. While playing for the Nexen (now Kiwoom) Heroes, Park threw 53 homers in 2015. After hitting 52 homers in 2014, Park became the first KBO player to hit at least 50 dingers in consecutive seasons. Park also led the KBO in homers in 2019 with 33, a relatively low tally by his standard. In total, Park was the KBO home run king every year from 2012 to 2015 and then again in 2019.

By 2020, some of Park’s early, video game-like issues had become a distant memory. Hampered by injuries, Park was limited to just 93 games and hit .223 with 21 homers, his lowest full-season total as a hero since joining the team in a trade from the LG Twins to during the 2011 season.

In 2021, Park finished dead last among all qualified hitters with a .227 batting average, while his hitting percentage dropped to .323. He hit 20 homers for his eighth consecutive season with at least that many, but the Heroes had already lost faith in their franchise star so much that they let him walk through free agency after the season.

The Wiz, according to Park, were the only team to even offer him an open market contract. They signed her to a three-year, 3 billion won ($2.4 million) contract in December, a deal that at the time seemed like a bad investment, but now has a high chance of being the best league business.

Park’s 13th homer came Tuesday against a reliever who almost never gives up a long fly ball.

As The Wiz led the twins 2-0 late in the eighth round at KT Wiz Park in Suwon, about 45 kilometers south of Seoul, Park stepped in against Jung Woo-young.

Prior to Tuesday, Jung had given up just six homers in 223 2/3 career innings. He gave up none in 65 innings last year.

And behind the count at 0-2, Park flashed on opposing upfield power, sending a sharp two-seam fastball to the outside corner over the right field wall for an equalizing shot.

It wasn’t Jung’s throwing error. Park was able to extend his arms and time his swing perfectly to get all the ball.

“I knew Jung Woo-young had been throwing his two-seams a lot lately,” said Park, who had sniffed and then fouled a few two-seams earlier at bat. “So I tried to be faster with my swing and it worked really well with the home run.”

It was a vintage Park swing, taking fans back to the mid-2010s when he almost casually swung to right field and left opponents and teammates stunned.

During that 2015 season, Park homered for every 11.7 plate appearances. So far this season, he’s gone deep once for every 11.4 plate appearances, putting him on pace for 50 home runs with 106 games left in the season.

With so much more baseball to play this year, it’s perhaps unrealistic to expect Park to maintain his current pace and hit the half-century milestone again. But Park has a good chance of winning his sixth career home run crown after doing so from 2012 to 2015 and again in 2019.

Lee Jong-yeol, a color commentator for cable station SBS Sports who called Tuesday’s Twins-Wiz match, said Park seemed much more comfortable in the box this year than in the recent past.

“I think he’s been able to get better timing on different terrains this year,” Lee said. “His swing is faster and more accurate. And he’s stronger than ever.”

Park carried the offensive load for the stoned Wiz, currently without two hitters expected to surround Park in the heart of the lineup. First baseman Kang Baek-ho and outfielder Henry Ramos are both out with broken toes. KT manager Lee Kang-chul said Tuesday he expects both players to return in about three weeks.

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