(Yonhap Interview) Pitching for defending KBO champions fueling Cuban veteran’s competitive fire

Well over a decade into his professional baseball career, Cuban pitcher Roenis Elias had recently started entertaining the notion of pitching in Asia, when the South Korean club SSG Landers came calling this year.

The Landers needed a new starting pitcher, after Enny Romero, whom they’d signed in December last year, remained sidelined with shoulder problems.

Knowing that the Landers were the 2022 Korean Series champions, with a strong chance to repeat this year, the 34-year-old pitcher jumped on that opportunity and signed for US$540,000 on May 4.

“I don’t think any baseball player likes losing. There are guys who absolutely love winning and who have an incredible competitive fire, and I fall in that category,” Elias told Yonhap News Agency through an interpreter Thursday at Incheon SSG Landers Field in Incheon, some 30 kilometers west of Seoul. He had made his Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) debut at the ballpark the previous day.

“For a few years, I’d been thinking about what it’d be like to play baseball in Asia,” Elias said. “I never had any opportunity. Then I got an offer (from the Landers), and I found out they won the championship last year. I figured this team could win the title again this year. That’s why I decided to come over.”

Elias, who has 133 major league games under his belt, made his first KBO start Wednesday against the LG Twins at home. The Landers and the Twins started the week knotted in first place. The Twins took the first game of the three-game set 9-1 on Tuesday. With Elias holding the Twins to three runs on five hits in five innings, the Landers won Wednesday’s game by 5-3.

Though he didn’t blow anyone away, Elias said he was still pleased with the outing, considering the circumstances. The Twins lead the KBO in several offensive categories, including batting average, runs, hits, doubles and on-base plus slugging.

“I made it through five innings against a team that we’re battling for first place,” said Elias, who struck out two and walked four. “I allowed three runs but given that it was my first start here against such a strong team, I don’t think it was that bad of a performance. It was a great experience, and I will continue to build on this.”

Landers manager Kim Won-hyong said he was pleased with Elias’ fastball, and he’d like to see better command of breaking balls.

Elias touched 150 kph with his fastball and 71 percent of his 49 fastballs went for strikes.

The left-hander also offered 27 changeups and 15 curveballs but found the strike zone less often with those pitches than he did with the fastball.

Noting that Elias changed his arm angle when throwing breaking balls, Kim said, “I told him he should consider sticking to the same delivery for every type of pitch until he is adjusted to the KBO.”

“Once he becomes more comfortable with the strike zone here, then he may be able to go back to his moves,” Kim said. “Until then, it’d be nice to have some consistency. His fastball has some zip to it, and if he can pair that with breaking balls, he will become so much better.”

Before coming over to the KBO, Elias got in touch with some fellow Cubans who’d played in the KBO in the recent past, such as former Doosan Bears pitcher Ariel Miranda, the 2021 KBO MVP, and former Bears designated hitter Jose Miguel Fernandez, who led the KBO in hits in 2019 and 2020.

On the Landers, Elias has a Cuban teammate in first-year outfielder Guillermo Heredia. The two were briefly teammates with the Seattle Mariners too.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how much advice he’s given me,” Elias said of Heredia. “Whether it’s playing baseball here, getting used to the new team or learning the new culture, I’ve been getting help from him in every aspect.”

Elias even reached out to the Dominican pitcher Raul Alcantara, a 20-game winner for the Bears in 2020 who’s back this year for a second tour of duty. Elias said he had also studied video clips that Miranda and Alcantara had posted online after their outings so that he could get a better sense of the level of competition in the KBO.

“I’d always thought this was a very competitive league,” Elias said. “And now that I’ve had a taste of it, I can see firsthand that they play quality baseball over here.”

One of the five hits Elias gave up Wednesday was a home run. The Landers’ home field is a notorious bandbox that yields a ton of long balls.

The Landers lead the KBO with 38 home runs through Thursday’s action, though they’re only seventh among 10 clubs with a .252 batting average. As much as those hitters enjoy playing there, their teammates on the pitching staff may not feel the same way.

When told of his new home stadium’s status as a hitter-friendly venue, Elias said he won’t pay any mind to his surroundings when taking the mound at home.

“No pitcher would want to play for this team if they had that kind of a mindset, thinking about how many home runs are being hit here,” Elias said. “I will only focus on sticking to my strengths. Surely, that will help produce positive results.”

Source: Yonhap News Agency