Column: Hyun-Jin Ryu’s first home run triggers grins and his strong outing elicits smiles

Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu, left, is congratulated by teammate Gavin Lux after hitting the first home run of his career.
Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu, left, is congratulated by Gavin Lux after hitting the first home run of his career in Sunday’s win over the Colorado Rockies.
(Getty Images)

At the insistence of the South Korean reporters who occupied multiple rows of seats in the Dodger Stadium interview room, Hyun-Jin Ryu placed a plastic cube on the table in front of him. Inside was the baseball he launched Sunday for his first career home run.

The conversation that followed was light-hearted, as a jovial Ryu shared that he used Cody Bellinger’s bat and joked how he didn’t think the ball would have carried over the right-field wall in a night game.

“I wasn’t thinking about my launch angle, especially with two strikes,” Ryu said through an interpreter.


The levity was equaled in magnitude by the relief Ryu felt in the 7-4 victory over the Colorado Rockies.

Will Smith was his catcher and Ryu wasn’t horrible. He gave up two home runs but limited the Rockies to three runs over seven largely solid innings.

The Dodgers hit four home runs in their last regular-season home game, a 7-4 win over the Colorado Rockies that also set a franchise season attendance record.

With the postseason approaching, the battery’s failures had come into sharp focus, especially with the other key members of the rotation also appearing vulnerable. The Dodgers were at their best when they were able to count on Ryu, Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler providing them with six or seven innings. They now can’t be certain they will get more than five from any of them, which, in turn, has increased the burden placed on their shaky bullpen.

In 19 starts with veteran backup Russell Martin behind the plate, Ryu had a 1.60 earned-run average. In the five times Ryu pitched to Smith before Sunday, that figure was 5.81.

The results were especially disastrous the last three times Ryu and Smith were paired, as the left-hander lasted fewer than five innings each time and had a combined ERA of 11.48.

As much as manager Dave Roberts downplayed the significance of the uneven splits, the team’s decision makers had to be considering the prospect of sacrificing Smith’s offense so that Martin could catch Ryu. The game Sunday alleviated some of the concerns.

“It was never a problem,” Ryu said. “Coincidentally, when he started catching, I started struggling.”

Ryu was apologetic that Smith’s ability to call his games was in question. He insisted the problem was never the catcher, but a loss of balance.

“I couldn’t execute my pitches,” he said. “My command was off. All the problems were internal. It had nothing to do with the catcher.”

He presented his performance Sunday as evidence.

Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu delivers during Sunday's 7-4 win over the Colorado Rockies.
(Getty Images)

The game didn’t start well for Ryu, as he served up a home run to Garrett Hampson in the first inning.

Ryu homered to tie the score in the fifth inning, eliciting calls of “Babe Ryu” from his teammates, who showered him with pats on his helmet and back. The blast energized the Dodgers, who went on to take a 5-1 lead in the inning on a grand slam by Bellinger.

On the mound, Ryu was cruising.

He didn’t give up another run until the seventh inning, when he left a changeup up in the strike zone that was hit over the fence by Sam Hilliard.

Ryu improved to 13-5.

“It was back to what you expect from Hyun-Jin Ryu,” Roberts said. “His entire mix was good. The changeups down below. The fastball command. The cutter. The breaking ball when he needed it. The way they were sequencing, they looked really good together, he and Will.”

Ryu said the game offered him a reminder that he has to eliminate the kinds of mistakes that resulted in the two home runs.

“In the postseason, it’s going to hurt even more,” he said.

After failing to complete five innings in three consecutive starts, Ryu has pitched seven in each of his last two. Ryu blanked the New York Mets for seven innings Sept. 14 in a game caught by Martin.

The soft-spoken Smith didn’t offer any particulars of what, if anything, he did differently in calling the game.

“It’s just ironing out all the little details, little stuff he likes,” Smith said.

The Dodgers can’t afford the problem to be any more serious than that.

Starting pitching is why the Dodgers have won 100 games. And if the Dodgers win the World Series, starting pitching will figure to be a major reason why.