“Coach, I’m going to go all the way.”
Took the mound from the top of the third inning to the bottom of the ninth without allowing a run. He was just shy of the high school baseball pitch limit (105 pitches). However, he faced a disappointing loss.
24th Mokdong Stadium. Jang Hyun-seok (19), the ‘best pitcher in high school’, heated up the field. In the quarter-finals of the 78th Cheongnyonggi National High School Baseball Championship and Weekend League Wangjoongwang (co-organised by Chosun Ilbo, Sports Chosun and the Korea Baseball Softball Association), Masan Yongmago, Jang Hyun-seok’s team, lost to Jang Chung-go by a score of 2 to 3 to 1.
In the top of the seventh inning, when Yongmago was down 0-3, Jang gave up a walk after two outs. By this time, he had thrown 75 pitches. That was all he needed to pitch in the final, scheduled for the 27th. Manager Jin Min-soo took the mound.
But Jang Hyun-seok had other ideas. The national high school baseball championship is a tournament. A loss would mean the end of Yongmago’s Blue Dragon era. Yongmago has yet to win a national championship since rebuilding its baseball team in 1963. They reached the Blue Dragon final once (1980) and the Golden Lion final five times, finishing as runners-up. There’s no telling when another pitcher of Jang Hyun-seok’s calibre will emerge.
With the bases loaded and one out, Jang stood at the plate with Ryu Hyun-jun, the No. 4 hitter who was responsible for three hits on the day. “I want to throw until the end,” Jang said. The commander, who had read his ace’s mind, nodded. After recording his 10th strikeout of the day to end the inning, Jang turned around. He looked at his teammates and raised his fist to the sky.
If he doesn’t make it to the major leagues, the No. 1 overall pick will. He pitched 6⅔ innings, allowing just three hits and four walks, and shut down the Jang Chung-go bats. His fastball was up to 155 kilometres and his variety of pitches, including a slider, curveball and change-up, was impressive. There were gasps in the press room whenever Jang’s first pitch hit the mitt of catcher Lee Jin-sung. From the top of the third inning to the top of the ninth, 14 of his 19 outs were strikes.
But the heavens were not on Yongmago’s side. The three early runs proved costly. Yongmago rallied in the bottom of the eighth, capitalising on a Kim Sun-yeop single, a fielding error, a Cha Seung-jun RBI single and a Kwon Hee-jae sacrifice fly to pull within two runs. However, they were unable to complete the comeback.
Jang Chung-go’s solid mound performance also stood out. Starter Kim Yoon-ha went 4⅔ innings with three hits and eight strikeouts, while second starter Cho Dong-wook kept the momentum going with 2⅓ innings of two-hit ball and five strikeouts. Despite giving up two runs in the bottom of the eighth, Hwang Jun-seo pitched two innings of relief to preserve the win. Jang Chung-go struck out a team-high 13 batters.
After the game, the teams exchanged high school baseball greetings. Jang Hyun-seok applauded the Jang Chung-go team and then joined hands with Hwang Jun-seo to show his friendship.
“We had talked about ‘seeing you in the quarter-finals’ before the tournament, so when we finally met, I told him that we were good friends and that we had won, so let’s win the championship. It was fun,” he smiled. It’s a smile that shows a hint of regret, but also the satisfaction of having done his bit.
When asked about his seventh inning substitution, he replied, “I just wanted to get my hands on Jang Chung-go, and I told him that I’m going to throw as long as I can, and that I’m going to finish the game today.”
Despite the good pitching, the game was still shaky in the middle innings with a few defensive errors. But after a scoreless top of the sixth, he let out three roars to the heavens, and pitched a near-perfect seventh through ninth.
“I changed my throwing point and feel a little bit. From the sixth to the seventh inning, I held my upper body back a little bit, and I think my timing was right. I felt the ball on my fingertips, and it was working, so I threw it with more confidence.”안전놀이터
“It’s an honour to play against the best pitcher in high school. I learnt a lot from him, including how he throws the ball and how he manages the game.”
The showcase is over. Cheong had seen it all. He’s 1.90 metres tall, has a solid physique, throws over 100 pitches a day, has an unrivalled delivery, and an agent who is considered one of the best in Korea. The only thing left for Jang Hyun-seok to do is answer the question of whether he wants to come to the United States.
He has until 15 August to complete the application process for the 2024 KBO Rookie Draft. Like Shim Jun-seok (Pittsburgh Pirates), he can choose to declare for the draft instead.
Jang said, “It’s hard to say right now. I’ll probably think about it right up until the deadline,” he laughs.