Dodgers-Padres Season Opener Is a Triumphant Homecoming for Korean Star Kim

AP Photo/Lee Jin-man
San Diego Padres Ha-Seong Kim fields a ground ball during a baseball workout at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, March 19, 2024.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Shohei Ohtani has received the most attention as his Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres prepare to launch the Major League Baseball season with the first regular season games in South Korea.

But the two-game series starting on Wednesday also is a triumphant homecoming for Padres shortstop Ha-Seong Kim, coming off a dominant season and returning to the Gocheok Sky Dome.

Kim played for the Kiwoom Heroes for seven seasons before signing with San Diego in 2020. He played down questions about being overshadowed by Ohtani, the Dodgers’ newly signed Japanese star, and said his focus was helping his team get off to a positive start against division rivals.

“When an MVP-level player arrives at a team, of course the attention is going to go that way. Our team has lots of good players, too, and I think Korean fans will just love the fact that Major League Baseball is being played in Seoul,” Kim said Tuesday after a workout at the stadium.

“The real games start tomorrow, so I am focused on keeping myself in good condition. I worked hard this year to prepare, and I need to perform well.”

Kim hit .260 with 17 homers, 60 RBIs and 38 steals while establishing himself last season as one of the best National League infielders on defense. He won his first Gold Glove as a utilityman, the first time an infielder from east Asia won the award.

Despite a roster built with years of heavy spending, the Padres finished 82-20 and third in the NL West behind the Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks, missing the playoffs.

Since the death of controlling owner Peter Seidler in November, the front office traded star outfielder Juan Soto to the New York Yankees and refrained from spending big on free agents. Former staff ace Blake Snell, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, has a pending deal with the division rival San Francisco Giants.

Kim seems to be stepping into a bigger role. He started 98 games at second base last season, 29 at third and 16 at shortstop, Manager Mike Shildt is trying him as the regular shortstop while moving Xander Bogaerts to second base.

During a voluntary workout on Tuesday, Kim spent much of the time fielding balls from shortstop and practicing double-play moves, drawing occasional cheers from teammates after fielding groundballs deep in the hole and firing accurately to first.

“Bogaerts is such a good player, so if I do good, our chemistry will get better,” Kim said. “We see each other more than our families and we are a tight bunch. Our players have worked hard, so I think we will definitely have a better record than last year. If we continue to fight, we will push ourselves closer to a championship.”

Kim has looked sharp in practice games against South Korean professional players this week, hitting two home runs against the reigning KBO champions LG Twins on Monday off pitchers he had faced for years.

Ohtani, who went 0 for 5 in two exhibition games against Korean opponents in Seoul, didn’t show up on the field for an optional workout on Tuesday. Mookie Betts fielded batted balls from shortstop, where he is set to start this season after making his first 16 appearances there last year.

AP Photo/Lee Jin-man
Los Angeles Dodgers’ designated hitter Shohei Ohtani prepares for an exhibition game between Team Korea and the Los Angeles Dodgers at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, March 18, 2024.

Tyler Glasnow, the Dodgers’ opening-day starter, threw long tosses from the outfield. Nearby, Game 2 starter Yoshinobu Yamamoto, another Japanese star Los Angeles signed in the offseason, went through his unusual training routines, including bounding rubber balls off the outfield wall and throwing small javelins.