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Dodgers-Padres season opener is a triumphant homecoming for Korean star Kim

By AP

Published : March 19, 2024 - 20:44

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San Diego Padres' shortstop Kim Ha-seong greets fans at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, on Tuesday. (AP-Yonhap) San Diego Padres' shortstop Kim Ha-seong greets fans at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, on Tuesday. (AP-Yonhap)

Shohei Ohtani has received the most attention as his Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres prepare to launch the Major League Baseball season with the first regular season games in South Korea.

But the two-game “Seoul Series" starting on Wednesday is also a triumphant homecoming for Padres shortstop Ha-Seong Kim , who is coming off a dominant season and returning to a stadium he previously called home.

Kim played for the Korea Baseball Organization’s Kiwoom Heroes for seven seasons before signing with San Diego in 2020. He called it a “glory” on Tuesday to play in Gocheok Sky Dome again.

He played down questions about being overshadowed by Ohtani, the Dodgers’ newly signed Japanese superstar, and said his focus was helping his team get off to a positive start against division rivals.

“When an MVP-level player arrives at a team, of course the attention is going to go that way. Our team has lots of good players, too, and I think Korean fans will just love the fact that Major League Baseball is being played in Seoul,” Kim said after a workout at the stadium.

“The real games start tomorrow, so I am focused on keeping myself in good condition. I worked hard this year to prepare, and I need to perform well.”

Kim hit .260 with 17 homers, 60 RBIs and 38 steals while establishing himself last season as one of the best defensive infielders in the National League. He won his first Gold Glove as a utilityman, which was the first time an infielder from east Asia won the award given for defensive skills.

Despite a roster built with years of heavy spending, the Padres finished third in the NL West behind the Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks with an 82-80 record and missed the playoffs in 2023.

The front office has since moved in a different direction, trading star outfielder Juan Soto to the New York Yankees and refrained from spending big on marquee free agents. Former staff ace Blake Snell , the reigning NL Cy Young winner, has also left the Padres to sign a two-year deal with the San Francisco Giants.

The departure of the key players, as well as the Dodgers’ offseason spending spree, have put more pressure on the Padres’ existing players and new manager Mike Shildt to reach the postseason.

Kim seems to be stepping into a bigger role, too. While Kim last season started 98 games at second base, 29 at third and 16 at shortstop, Shildt is trying him as their regular shortstop while moving Xander Bogaerts to second base to clear the way.

During a voluntary workout on Tuesday, Kim spent much of the time fielding balls from shortstop and practicing double-play moves, drawing occasional cheers from teammates after fielding groundballs deep in the hole and firing accurately to first.

“Bogaerts is such a good player, so if I do good, our chemistry will get better,” Kim said. “We see each other more than our families and we are a tight bunch. Our players have worked hard, so I think we will definitely have a better record than last year. If we continue to fight, we will push ourselves closer to a championship."

Kim has looked sharp in practice games against South Korean professional players this week, hitting two home runs against the reigning KBO champions LG Twins on Monday off pitchers he faced for years.

Ohtani, who went 0 for 5 in two exhibition games against Korean opponents in Seoul, didn’t show up on the field for an optional workout on Tuesday.

The Dodgers' other superstar, Mookie Betts, fielded batted balls from shortstop, a position he was recently shifted to in a key move for them.

Tyler Glasnow, pegged as the Dodgers’ starter for Game 1, threw long tosses from the outfield. Nearby, Game 2 starter Yoshinobu Yamamoto, another Japanese star the Dodgers signed in the offseason, went through his unusual training routines, including bounding rubber balls off the outfield wall and throwing small javelins.