JUPITER, Fla. — When Cardinals lefty Kwang Hyun Kim returned to the mound for the first time in weeks, he wore a souvenir from the several days he spent immobilized because of back soreness.
Instructed to rest and unable to bend forward without pain, Kim explained that “was the reason” he could not shave and let his facial hair grow, giving the goatee he sported Saturday its start. He did not expect it to last long. Kim said he’d shave that night — suggesting his amount of facial hair will serve as a visual barometer for his readiness to return to the Cardinals’ rotation.
“Just maybe shave the chin part,” he said, laughing.
The Miami Marlins greeted Kim in his first Grapefruit League game since March 8 with back-to-back triples, but the lefty settled from there and had a brisk second inning.
Soon to be placed on the injured list, Kim met with the Cardinals on Saturday to script his next few weeks and the route back to the rotation and clean jawline. The lefty will remain in Florida when the team leaves for Thursday’s opening day in Cincinnati. He could join the club to throw a simulated game when it visits Miami for the second series of the season, or he could report to the alternate-site camp in Sauget, Ill., depending on his progress.
He has at least two more outings scheduled, because the Cardinals do not intend to have him build arm strength on the job.
Once Kim can reach 80 pitches effectively and recover comfortably, he’ll be targeted for a mid-April return. The Cardinals announced Saturday they will begin the year with Daniel Ponce de Leon in the rotation, and he will hold the spot originally earmarked for Kim.
The Cardinals want Kim to meet a pitch threshold “before we can justify him being able to start and carry a starter’s load,” manager Mike Shildt said. “More traditional buildup to get his starts and be ready to take a starting spot some time in April, we’re thinking.”
Kim threw 35 pitches in relief of Jack Flaherty, who is to be the team’s opening-day starter, on Saturday, and allowed two runs on three hits in the Cardinals’ 6-4 loss to Miami at Roger Dean Stadium.
Some of the numbers that he brought up as a concern in his first start of spring training had corrected themselves, especially by the second inning Saturday. Even one of the pitches laced for a triple was reassuring — as it left his finger at 90 mph. Kim had five pitches at 90 mph or swifter, and that puts his velocity closer to his season average of 89.9 mph in 2020. The Marlins turned two triples to the left-center wall from the first two batters to face Kim into two runs against the lefty. He found his footing from there.
Five of the next six batters he faced hit groundballs. The Marlin who didn’t ground out struck out on a curveball.
“Pitches over the middle, made him pay, some hitter’s counts, and then still feeling it a little bit, making sure everything was working,” Shildt said. “He’s throwing his sides. He’s throwing his ‘sim’ (simulated) games. So everything is checked out. Still, you get in that competition, you get the other team’s jersey going, get some fans going — there’s still that, hey, let me make sure I’m OK. He started trusting what he was doing, feeling good, and started to let it eat a little bit.”
Kim started his second inning with back-to-back strikes on two fastballs. He followed with a series of changeups, and the one hit he allowed — a single — came on a grounder. It was the only ball to leave the infield after the second triple.
Eleven of Kim’s final 17 pitches were strikes.
“The last two games before the injury, it was the same thing,” the lefty said, as translated by Craig Choi. “I had struggled with the first batter and when they got on base I kind of got puzzled. As I will build up and pitch the next (few) games, I will try to focus on being a clean inning. That’s what I’m trying to do. Focus on facing the first hitter in an inning to get the momentum on my side.”
The Cardinals intend to inch his pitch count by increments of 15 or 20. So, he’ll aim for 50 pitches in his next outing and then 65 before nearing that goal of 80.
Kim, entering the final year of the two-year contract that brought him over from the KBO, started last season as the Cardinals’ closer before moving into the rotation, the place he’s spent most of his career.
The Cardinals could have him join the active roster sooner with the intent of building him on the go — increasing his pitch counts start by start while in competition and prepping the bullpen to handle the leftover innings. If the injury happened during the season, that’s a plan they might explore, Shildt said.
But with other starters available and a keen sense of the bullpen mix they want to take into the rotation, it’s a razor’s edge they’ll avoid. The preference is to have Kim build stamina offstage and not risk capsizing the bullpen to cover innings.
“We don’t want to necessarily build on the job because it compromises the bullpen,” Shildt said. “And we all know if the bullpen gets overused then guys are down for the next couple of days — it has got some residual effects. We prefer the guy be able to go. That’s the reason they start, right? To be able to eat innings. And, to able to feel comfortable he’s ready to pitch at least five. If we didn’t feel that was the case, we wouldn’t start him.”
Shildt said Kim understands the steady “pace” of his return to play plan, just as he found a more familiar pace in that second inning. The command was there, the drop on his changeup, and the perk he had sought in his fastball.