By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Oct. 18 (Yonhap) -- In just a few years, Choi Ji-man has evolved from a player seemingly no club wanted into a key member of a World Series-bound team.
The Rays defeated the Houston Astros 4-2 in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series (ALCS) at Petco Park in San Diego on Saturday (local time). The Rays won the first three games of this series before dropping the next three in a row. They just avoided becoming only the second team in major league history to squander a 3-0 series lead to lose a best-of-seven postseason round.
Choi played in five of the seven games and went 5-for-13 with a home run, an RBI, three runs scored and four walks. He was 2-for-3 with a walk and a run scored in the clinching contest.
He is now expected to become the first South Korean position player to appear in a World Series game. The Rays will face the winner of the National League Championship Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers, who will meet in their own Game 7 on Sunday. The World Series begins next Tuesday in the neutral venue of Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
Choi, 29, bounced around three organizations from 2016 to 2018 and finally settled in with the Rays in the second half of 2018. Signed by the Seattle Mariners out of high school in South Korea in 2009, Choi didn't make his big league debut until 2016, and that came with the Los Angeles Angels.
The Baltimore Orioles had signed him as a free agent in November 2015 but lost him to the Angels in the Rule 5 draft. The Angels didn't tender him a contract and made him a free agent in January 2017. Choi signed with the New York Yankees later that month but only appeared in six games in pinstripes in his lone season in the Bronx.
Then it was off to Milwaukee for the 2018 season, but the Brewers traded him to the Rays in June 2018.
The late bloomer hasn't looked back. In his first full season in 2019, Choi established career highs across the board, including 19 home runs and 63 RBIs, along with a .261/.363/.458 line.
In a truncated, 60-game season in 2020, Choi wasn't going to match those counting stats. But he also disappointed with the rate stats and finished with a .230/.331/.410 line.
Choi was so desperate to jump-start his season this summer that he even dabbled at switch hitting.
The first baseman, who bats left and throws right, even hit a home run from the right side of the plate in a late July game against the Toronto Blue Jays. But about a month later, Choi was still only batting below .200 with little power and decided to ditch his experiment.
He then started swinging the bat a little better toward late August but ended up missing the final two weeks of the regular season with a hamstring injury.
Choi recovered in time for the postseason, after the Rays posted the best record in the AL at 40-20. He was quiet in the Wild Card Series against the Toronto Blue Jays, batting 0-for-3 with a strikeout while coming off the bench in two games.
It was a different story in the American League Division Series (ALDS). Choi started every game and hit in the cleanup spot in all five. In Game 1, Choi smacked a go-ahead, two-run homer off the Yankees' starter Gerrit Cole, giving the Rays a 3-2 lead in the bottom fourth. The Rays lost 9-3.
Choi reached base three times, with two walks and a hit by pitch, in a 7-5 win in Game 2. In the next game, Choi went 2-for-5 with an RBI in an 8-4 victory, his first multi-hit effort in the postseason.
Choi picked up another hit in Game 4, a 5-1 win for the Yankees.
For the series, Choi batted .267/.421/.533 with a home run, three RBIs, three walks and two runs scored.
In the ALCS, Choi was benched in Games 1 and 3 against left-handed starter Framber Valdez. When he did play, Choi made an impact both with his glove and his bat.
In Game 2, Choi put on a clinic at first base, picking one throw after another in the dirt and showing off his flexibility with a full stretch on multiple occasions.
Choi had a big moment at the plate in Game 5, when he smoked a game-tying solo home run in the top of the eighth inning for his second homer of this postseason. Though the shot seemed to have energized the Rays, it ultimately went for naught as the Astros walked off on them 4-3 in the bottom ninth.
Choi struck out in his pinch-hit appearance in Game 6 but returned to the starting lineup for Game 7. He had two singles and drew a walk, while scoring a much-needed insurance run in the bottom sixth to put the Rays ahead by 4-0.
Depending on the starting pitching matchup, Choi is once again expected to split time at first base with right-handed batting Yandy Diaz in the World Series. Three South Korean players that have been there before Choi were all pitchers: Kim Byung-hyun (2001 Arizona Diamondbacks), Park Chan-ho (2009 Philadelphia Phillies) and Ryu Hyun-jin (2018 Los Angeles Dodgers). Kim is the only one of the trio with a ring.