Hyun-Jin Ryu seems to be reaching a new level

SAN DIEGO -- Martin Kim, who works in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ business offices, visited South Korea with Hyun-Jin Ryu last October.

Kim, who doubles as Ryu’s interpreter during the season, traveled with the pitcher in his native country and, while he was there, tried to drum up some sponsorships for the team with South Korean companies. Kim wasn’t quite prepared for what would greet them at Incheon Airport in Seoul when their plane landed.

There were 200 South Korean reporters waiting. It would have been more, but that was the day of the fifth game of the Korean Baseball Organization’s championship series. Everywhere Ryu went, he was mobbed. He had to give another well-attended news conference when he left the country to report to spring training.

"It was like traveling with The Beatles," Kim said.

Ryu noticed his celebrity had ramped up considerably. When he left South Korea, he was the best pitcher in the country. When he returned, he was one of the best pitchers in the world. Ryu was the first player to jump directly from the Korean league to the major leagues and he finished fourth in rookie of the year balloting after going 14-8 with a 3.00 ERA.

"I think the difference is, before I left, I was recognized by baseball fans," Ryu said. "Now, I’m recognized by everyone, whether they like baseball or not, from kids to their grandparents."

If Ryu now has an entire nation counting on him to represent it internationally, he has a slightly jittery major league organization counting on him to represent it domestically. The Dodgers are in need of an ace with Clayton Kershaw on the disabled list with a sore upper back, and, through his first two turns in the rotation, Ryu has looked perfectly ace-like.

Ryu has pitched 12 scoreless innings and was one bad Brian Wilson outing from being 2-0 before most major league pitchers have even begun their season. He pitched the Dodgers’ second game of the season, their domestic opener against the San Diego Padres on Sunday night and he’ll be Kershaw’s stand-in for the Dodgers’ home opener Friday afternoon.

There were, of course, questions about how Ryu would fare in season No. 2, but so far, the answers have been nothing but encouraging. He showed up in Arizona in better shape than the season before. He worked with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt on a new grip for his curveball and, by the latter innings Sunday night, the Dodgers were seeing a new weapon emerge.

Ryu’s changeup has been the strength of his repertoire, but he has a lively enough fastball -- 89 to 93 mph -- to keep hitters honest. He mixes in a slider.

"He showed flashes last season. It seemed like his best games were when he had the curveball going," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "When he started throwing it tonight in the game, immediately on my end I could tell that this pitch was different from the pitch he’s thrown in the past."

If Ryu really is developing a devastating breaking ball, that takes him one step closer to Kershaw’s level, and it couldn’t come at a better time for the Dodgers. With Kershaw down, questions over Josh Beckett’s return from major surgery and Dan Haren’s return from mediocrity, the Dodgers are leaning heavily on Ryu and Zack Greinke.

For a player with limited proficiency in English, Ryu has integrated seamlessly into the Dodgers clubhouse.

"All the questions he had last year have been answered, and he’s going to be a guy who I think is really going to flourish in his second year," Ellis said. "He’s beloved in this clubhouse, and we know that every time he takes the ball, we’re going to have a really good chance to win the game."

The Dodgers are hopeful Kershaw’s time on the DL will be a matter of days rather than weeks, but as they learned last season, when seemingly minor injuries dragged on, you never know. It’s nice to know they have one of the most reliable left-handers in the league going every fifth day. It’s even nicer to know he might have only scratched the surface with a promising rookie season.