You want a good story? Here’s a good story. Jung Ho Kang, in his first game back in the majors after the devastating September knee injury that knocked him out of the wild-card game and the start of the 2016 season, hit two home runs Friday night for the Pittsburgh Pirates. On the road. Against their division rivals in St. Louis. In a 4-2 victory. How can you not enjoy something like that? He hit a two-run homer to right field in the sixth and then a solo shot to left in the eighth. Not bad for a guy who went 6-for-40 in his rehab assignment. Not bad for a guy with an injury so severe it was compared to those found in people who have been in car wrecks.
The Pirates were coming off a three-game sweep at the hands of the Cubs, so this lines up as a crucial series, important for them to not fall into a tailspin and let the Cubs start lapping them in the division race. So Kang’s two home runs and Francisco Liriano‘s 10 strikeouts over seven innings provided a nice antidote to that Cubs sweep. The Pirates also improved to 4-0 against the Cardinals.
Kang was a big part of last season’s team, a free agent from South Korea, where he was the best player in the Korean league but viewed with skepticism on whether his power would translate in the majors. He started at both third base and shortstop and hit .287/.355/.461 with 15 home runs in 421 at-bats; and, remember, Pittsburgh is a tough park for right-handed power. When he went down because of his injury, he was hitting fourth or fifth in the lineup.
It will be interesting to see how Clint Hurdle maneuvers Kang into the lineup. General manager Neal Huntington indicated Kang would play only third and would be eased back into the lineup, not starting every game. David Freese had been starting at third base, hitting .291/.376/.388, but with only one home run and 31 strikeouts. Even with Kang limited to third base, Hurdle should have some flexibility in the lineup. Freese could platoon at first base with John Jaso, freeing Sean Rodriguez to fill in at second base or shortstop for Josh Harrisonor Jordy Mercer. But once the knee is deemed ready, Kang will be in the lineup every day.
The Pirates will need his bat, because while the offense has been productive so far, ranking fifth in the National League in runs per game while scoring more than half a run more per game than 2015, they’re going to have to outscore their opponents due to a mediocre starting rotation and a bullpen that has yet to dominate as it did in 2015. Lefties Jonathon Niese (5.94 ERA) and Jeff Locke(4.73) have both struggled. The bullpen’s ERA, an MLB-best 2.67 in 2015, is 4.17 so far, ranking 20th in the majors.
It’s a fun lineup, one that doesn’t beat you with power — only Andrew McCutchen has more than four home runs — but with walks and hits. The Pirates are batting a former catcher, Jaso, in the leadoff spot and McCutchen in the two-hole. Their regular No. 5 hitter is catcher Francisco Cervelli, who hasn’t hit a home run but does possess a. 423 OBP. Gregory Polanco is suddenly walking a ton and has a .408 OBP. Now they’ve added Kang. That’s a good lineup, solid from 1 through 9.