Hyun Soo Kim becoming a difference-maker for Orioles

BALTIMORE -- Back in spring training, Hyun Soo Kim was having trouble catching up to big-league cheese. Not so much anymore.

In the decisive seventh inning of the Orioles' 6-5 comeback win over the New York Yankees on Friday night, Kim turned around a 97-mph fastball from flame-throwing reliever Dellin Betances and sent it back up the middle for a single that led to the go-ahead run. The hit was one of three on the game for Kim, and by far the most improbable.

Early in spring training, after signing a two-year, $7 million contract with the Orioles, the 28-year old outfielder -- a lifetime .318 hitter over 10 seasons in Korea -- looked like a foreign free agent fail. He went hitless in his first 23 at-bats in Grapefruit League action.

He also went from being the Orioles' presumptive Opening Day left fielder to just barely making the roster, and only then because he refused a minor league assignment. A big part of the problem for Kim was adjusting to the velocity of major league pitching with an abbreviated preseason.

“We normally start in January to build our body up to make sure that we can catch up to the pitches,” Kim said through interpreter Danny Lee after the game. “Here, we didn't start until late February.”

As if the shorter training period wasn’t enough of a shock to his system, the speed of major league pitching made it even worse. According to Kim, the hardest thrower he faced in Korea was Seung Hwan Oh. Now a rookie with the Cardinals, Oh’s average fastball velocity this season is 92.2 mph, and the hardest pitch he has thrown was clocked at 95.2.

Compare that to Betances, the 6-foot-8, 265-pound behemoth who’s nearly a foot taller than the 5-foot-10 Oh, who has hit 101 on the radar gun this year, and whose average heater (97.0) is almost two miles an hour faster than Oh’s max.

On top of that, there’s the fact that Kim had never seen Betances before. Well, not in person anyway.

“They broadcast all the major league games in Korea, and Betances is popular,” Kim said. “So I’ve seen him on TV.”

Despite the long-distance telescouting, Kim still needed a consult from Orioles hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh before facing Betances, the overpowering hurler who came into the game with 50 strikeouts in 25⅔ innings. Coolbaugh reminded Kim that the big righty was a fastball/curveball pitcher, and dropped one important nugget on his pupil.

“He told me I can’t just fall behind,” said the lefty hitter, whose crucial seventh-inning at-bat came with the score tied 5-5 and Adam Jones on first with nobody out.

Quick study that he is, Kim took a 97-mph heater for ball one, then jumped on a second 97-mph offering and sent it back up the middle for his third hit of the night. Besides advancing Jones to third (he scored on a Manny Machado groundout), the single -- which came after Kim already had collected two base knocks off hard-throwing starter Nathan Eovaldi -- impressed Buck Showalter.

“He's staying short, not trying to get very big and taking what they give him,” the Orioles skipper said. “He's handling a lot of pitches and not missing the pitches that he can handle. I said in the spring and especially as the season went on, the process and the stages he's gone through, he's kind of prepared for this. He's taken great advantage of it. We're lucky. He's been right in the middle of just about everything for us, it seems.”

In the past three games, all comeback wins, the Orioles have scored 17 total runs in the sixth inning or later, and Kim has three hits among those rallies. After starting just a total of seven games during the first seven weeks of the season, he has now started nine of the past 10, batting .400 in the process and solidifying the top of the lineup for a Birds bunch that has clawed its way back into a first-place tie with the Red Sox.

Just like that, the former Doosan Bear has gone from forgotten foreigner to import of import. From overmatched overseas to starring stateside. From vanquished visitor to big-league belonger.

Batting second in each of his past six starts, he has allowed Manny Machado to slide down to his rightful spot in the three-hole (where he has produced the go-ahead RBIs in each of the past two games) and has given the all-or-nothing O’s a consistent contact bat that they sorely needed. On the season, Kim is now hitting .391 with an eye-popping .466 on-base percentage. Of course, it’s early still.

“He doesn’t have 100 at-bats yet,” said Showalter, ever the master of the reality check. “But so far so good.”