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MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Park feels fellow Korean Ryu will shine in Hollywood

Park feels fellow Korean Ryu will shine in Hollywood

PEORIA, Ariz. -- In his first few outings in a Dodgers uniform this spring, Hyun-Jin Ryu wasn't overly impressive. One of those starts was against the Angels, who cuffed him around in his first of two innings and judged his stuff as relatively ordinary.

Ryu will reintroduce himself to the Angels on Thursday night at Angel Stadium in his Southern California debut. If manager Mike Scioscia's hitters have trouble recognizing him, it's because he's a new Ryu, getting closer to the real Ryu -- the one Chan Ho Park, his former teammate in Korea, knows very well.

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"Wait until May, June," said Park, who was a big brother figure for Ryu in 2012 on the staff of the Hanwha Eagles of South Korea and has been in the Dodgers' camp late this spring. "He's going to get better. That's how he is. He gets stronger and sharper as the season goes on. As long as he stays comfortable, he'll be fine."

Early this spring, as Ryu was rounding into shape, the question was whether he'd crack the rotation. That became a non-issue as he began to find his rhythm.

Finishing with a flourish, Ryu, 26, is set to go in the second game of the season on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium against Giants southpaw Madison Bumgarner. Clayton Kershaw engages San Francisco ace Matt Cain on Monday on Opening Day.

"They are the World Series champions," Ryu said. "But last year's World Series champions. This year will be different. It's exciting to face a top caliber team."

Ryu hasn't yet consistently unleashed his best heater -- that will come, Park maintains -- but has managed to rack up 23 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings, allowing 17 hits and eight walks.

"It takes a little time to get comfortable," Park said. "When you miss a pitch, forget about it. Go on to the next one. If he doesn't think too much, it's better for him.

"He's got a good fastball and a nice breaking ball. The changeup is his best offspeed pitch. His changeup is a good strikeout pitch for him."

Park's high regard for Ryu extends to the way he conducts himself off the mound.

"He's a good kid, very professional, with a great personality," Park said. "He understands pressure. He's been the No. 1 pitcher in Korea for a long time. He's going to be good for the Dodgers. He's not difficult to deal with, and he's got the stuff and the attitude."

The Dodgers certainly think so. They handed the big southpaw a six-year, $36 million contract after winning bidding rights in November with a $25.7 million posting fee to the Hanwha Eagles.

Ryu is following in the footsteps of Park, a hero to every youngster playing ball in his homeland. Chan Ho, in some respects, is the Jackie Robinson of baseball in Korea. When he signed with the Dodgers in 1994, not long removed from Kong Ju High School, he was paving the way for Ryu and other South Koreans.

Park was 2 ½ months shy of his 21st birthday when he made his Major League debut on April 8 that season. He came in to finish a 6-0 loss to the Braves, giving up two runs in the ninth inning. There were 36,546 fans in attendance, and those who stuck around can say they saw the start of a terrific career.

For Park, it was an out-of-body experience.

"Everything was new, and I was so young," he said, grinning. "I didn't know anything. I didn't even feel it. I had so much to learn."

Park made one more appearance before the Dodgers shipped him to Double-A San Antonio. There he met Burt Hooton, a pitching instructor and former Dodgers starter.

"Burt Hooton was my best friend my first two years," said Park, who spent most of the 1995 season at Triple-A Albuquerque before breaking through with the Dodgers in '96. "He was like an uncle to me. He cared about me, my emotions, while he was helping me learn techniques.

"One thing I told Ryu was that meeting good people is very important. I told him to try to make his pitching coach his best friend. When I got my first Major League win, I called Burt Hooton before I even called my parents. That's how important he was to me."

Hooton was thrilled to see Park emerge as a star in 2000, winning 18 games, and make the National League All-Star Game in '01 as a 15-game winner. He moved to Texas in '02 and never was quite as good, but he had a full career, going 124-98 with a 4.36 ERA for seven teams.

His favorite season was '09 when his Phillies reached the World Series, falling to the Yankees. Park appeared in four Series games, holding the Yankees scoreless in 3 1/3 innings. He had a 2.61 postseason ERA in 13 career appearances.

Taking Park's advice to heart, Ryu is on good terms with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, manager Don Mattingly and seemingly everybody else in the organization. His popularity is evident in the clubhouse.

Dodger Stadium has been home to some great ones from baseball's international community, from Fernando Valenzuela to Park to Hideo Nomo. Here comes Ryu.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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