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(Yonhap Interview) Kindness above all else: how American pitcher Wes Benjamin found 'second home' in S. Korea

09:51 January 18, 2023

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Jan. 18 (Yonhap) -- In spring of 2022, American pitcher Wes Benjamin took what he called a "leap of faith" to head to South Korea and continue his baseball career in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), not really knowing what to expect.

As a midseason acquisition for the KT Wiz in May, Benjamin more than held his own. The former Major League Baseball (MLB) pitcher went 5-4 with a 2.70 ERA in 17 starts during the regular season, and pitched to a solid 2.77 ERA in two starts and one relief outing covering 13 postseason innings.

In this file photo from Oct. 17, 2022, KT Wiz starter Wes Benjamin celebrates after retiring the side in the bottom of the third inning of Game 5 of the first round in the Korea Baseball Organization postseason against the Kiwoom Heroes at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Benjamin, 29, parlayed that into a new contract with the Wiz, worth US$1.3 million. With a partial season in South Korea under his belt, Benjamin is now looking forward to hitting the ground running in his first full season here.

"My mindset is a little different (from last year) in that I know what I am capable of and have a better understanding of hitters," Benjamin told Yonhap News Agency on Wednesday. "It is a relief to not have as many unknowns, and I can be more of myself out there like I showed towards the end of the season."

Benjamin said he was "very fortunate" to be surrounded by understanding teammates and coaches when he first arrived. In particular, he said he received tremendous help from an incumbent foreign pitcher, Odrisamer Despaigne, and even the one he was replacing, William Cuevas.

And it was the similar type of compassion and kindness displayed by his one-time Korean teammate with the Texas Rangers in 2021, Yang Hyeon-jong, that had also taught Benjamin some valuable lessons before he joined the KBO.

In this file photo from Oct. 17, 2022, KT Wiz starter Wes Benjamin celebrates a catch made by left fielder Anthony Alford against the Kiwoom Heroes during the bottom of the fifth inning of Game 2 of the first round in the Korea Baseball Organization postseason at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. (Yonhap)

"I was fortunate enough to witness how Yang Hyeon-jong handled the difficult transition of playing in MLB, and how poised he was as well as how nice of a person he was while doing it," Benjamin said of the pitcher now back with the Kia Tigers in the KBO. "That was my blueprint for success in the KBO and I will continue to try my best to perform similarly. I understand how difficult it can be for foreign players and people all over the world now, and I will always choose kindness as a way to help out."

On the mound, though, Benjamin will try not to be all that kind to opposing hitters. He said he will have to make adjustments to his pitch selection in 2023, so that he won't be as predictable.

"Now that there is a lot of scouting report information out on me, I will be able to see early how teams try to approach me, and that will determine how big of a change I will need to make," Benjamin said. "If I can avoid giving up as many home runs as I did early on last year, that would be my most obvious room for improvement."

Benjamin was quite the workhorse for the Wiz down the stretch last year as they tried to win their second consecutive Korean Series title. He went at least six innings in four of his final five regular season starts. He then pitched in the wild card game out of the bullpen on two days' rest, and memorably struck out the side in one inning of work against the Tigers.

In this file photo from Oct. 17, 2022, KT Wiz starter Wes Benjamin pitches against the Kiwoom Heroes during the bottom of the first inning of Game 2 of the first round in the Korea Baseball Organization postseason at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Benjamin then made his first postseason start in the next round, against the Kiwoom Heroes, after resting for three days. Showing no signs of wear, the left-hander tossed seven shutout innings and struck out nine. He had not pitched on short rest before any of his regular season starts.

Benjamin could have told the team he would rather stick to his normal routine and refused to go on short rest, and few would have raised an eyebrow. He certainly wouldn't have been the first pitcher to do that. But Benjamin made himself available to pitch in whatever situation the Wiz needed him.

"That was something I had become accustomed to doing in MLB, switching between starting and coming out of the bullpen," he said. "I made sure to let the coaching staff know I was available for them to use if needed. The adrenaline of the playoffs certainly helped, and I was willing to do what was necessary to help KT move forward in the postseason."

The Wiz ultimately bowed out to the Heroes, but not all was lost for Benjamin in the 2022 season.

"I've learned that difficult decisions usually end up being the most worthwhile," he said. "And I'm proud to know that I can deal with adversity and thrive."

In this file photo from Oct. 22, 2022, KT Wiz starter Wes Benjamin pitches against the Kiwoom Heroes during the bottom of the first inning of Game 5 of the first round in the Korea Baseball Organization postseason at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. (Yonhap)

The native of Winfield, Illinois, said he couldn't wait to reunite with his teammates and compete in the Wiz's home city of Suwon and added, "I'm grateful to call that a second home to me."

Benjamin will get to see a few of his teammates in a new context in March, with four Wiz players set to represent South Korea at the World Baseball Classic (WBC). KT manager Lee Kang-chul will also be managing South Korea there, while their minor league manager, Kim Ki-tai, will be the national team hitting coach.

So what will Benjamin do when South Korea, his adopted home, and the United States, his actual home, collide at the WBC?

"It would be very difficult to root against either team so I will hope that they won't match up together," Benjamin said. "But as my current teammates and coaches are playing, I will be rooting for Team Korea to win the WBC."

In this file photo from Oct. 17, 2022, KT Wiz starter Wes Benjamin (L) bumps fists with his manager Lee Kang-chul after being named the Player of the Game in a 2-0 victory over the Kiwoom Heroes in Game 2 of the first round in the Korea Baseball Organization postseason at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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