IT'S FITTING THAT Hyun-Jin Ryu's out pitch is his changeup, because nothing about the Dodgers' other rookie sensation is what it seems. He is more than an illusionist; he is the illusion. Yasiel Puig's theatrics, even the most mind-bending of them, make perfect sense when you see him shirtless. He looks exactly like a man capable of scaling walls, of hitting and throwing baseballs as far as his heart desires. The surprise is that he was a surprise. But Ryu -- generously listed at 255 uncut pounds, a pack of smokes stashed in the top of his locker -- seems an unlikely candidate for physical cunning, even though he's a master of it.
His own teammates were among the first he fooled. "I think everybody was underwhelmed by what they saw," says catcher A.J. Ellis, remembering the opening days of spring training. The 26-year-old Ryu is the first South Korean player bought and sold via the posting system, and the Dodgers paid dearly for his services; in exchange for their combined $61 million in bids and contracts, they were expecting magic. He had dominated his domestic league, and he'd carried his country to gold at the 2008 Olympics. But Ryu arrived in America more overweight than usual, and his arm looked mediocre. Despite the language barrier, he soon picked up on the panic around him. Now it was his turn to be confused. Wasn't the point of spring training to get into his version of shape?
"On and off the field, he's kind of an energy conserver," Ellis says. "But he knows when to turn it up. He is sneaky athletic. The way he fields his position and swings the bat -- the guy's just an amazing athlete."
But it's his pitching that has made him one of his resurgent team's most valuable players, and among its most beloved. (His No. 99 is the 11th most popular jersey in baseball, one spot behind Puig's No. 66.) "He's been one of the main guys who's kept us afloat," says Don Mattingly, his manager. Despite Ryu's size, he isn't overpowering. He relies instead on an almost impossibly delicate touch. His uncanny ability to get outs with his slowest pitches -- including that mystifying changeup -- has made him a kind of anti-Puig, remarkably consistent rather than consistently remarkable.
"Anytime you have a guy you don't have to worry about, that's what you want," says teammate and fellow lefthander Clayton Kershaw. "But that means Ryu isn't getting the accolades he should be getting. Puig's had an unbelievable month and a half, but Ryu has been solid from the beginning." In his first 20 starts, Ryu never pitched less than five innings, and he never gave up more than five runs. When his curveball really snaps, he can give Puig a race for spectacular -- he threw a two-hitter against the Angels in May -- but mostly he's given the Dodgers an endless supply of steady.
"I always thought that a starting pitcher's responsibility is to stay on the mound as long as possible," Ryu says through Martin Kim, his ever-present interpreter. "I see it as my duty to do what I do." Believing that sameness begets sameness, he has become wedded to an off-field routine. The night before every one of his starts, and in the late nights after them, he searches out a Korean restaurant and tucks into the barbecue that reminds him of home. In Los Angeles, with its vibrant Koreatown, he's spoiled for choice. In Milwaukee, he found only a single restaurant still open long after dark. This July in Toronto, after his eighth win of the season, Ryu scanned a long row of barbecue joints before he picked one, pushing through the doors into unexpected bedlam. "I had to play security," the diminutive Kim says with a smile.
An online campaign had drawn nearly 1,000 Korean fans to the game, where they sat together waving flags and chanting Ryu's name, blurring the line between home and away. But in a familiar pattern, it was Puig's wall-shaking catch, not Ryu's perfectly ordinary start, that had left even the Korean fans buzzing. Now some of those same fans had shared Ryu's postgame cravings, and they jumped out of their chairs and surrounded him, asking for autographs and pictures with baseball's most unlikely new star. In that Toronto restaurant, not long before midnight, Hyun-Jin Ryu pulled off the best of his tricks. He'd made his adoring audience forget about the flash of greatness they had just seen, blinding them instead with his everyday good.