When their 2020 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers begins in a Texas bubble this week, the Tampa Bay Rays and their South Korean first baseman, Choi Ji-man, will also start their pursuit of "firsts."
As in: the Rays, who began play in 1998, will chase their first-ever World Series title. And whatever Choi does at the plate and on the field will be a first for a South Korean position player. Choi is the fourth South Korean to reach the World Series but the first batter to make it this far.
Every game of the best-of-seven series will be played at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. Game 1 is 7:09 p.m. Tuesday local time, or 9:09 a.m. Wednesday in Seoul.
Right-hander Kim Byung-hyun was the first South Korean player to appear in the World Series, doing so as the closer for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001. He also won the World Series that year and remains the only South Korean with a championship ring.
Kim has another ring from the 2004 Boston Red Sox, even though he didn't pitch in the postseason that year.
Park Chan-ho, the very first South Korean to play in the majors, made it to his first and only World Series in 2009 with the Philadelphia Phillies. They lost to the New York Yankees that year.
In 2018, the Dodgers' left-hander Ryu Hyun-jin became the first South Korean pitcher to start a World Series game, taking the mound in Game 2 against the Boston Red Sox. The Dodgers bowed out in five games.
Choi is entering the World Series in fine form. He batted .385/.529/.615 in five games in the American League Championship Series (ALCS) against the Houston Astros, with a home run, an RBI, three runs scored and four walks. Over his final three games, Choi was 4-for-5 with three walks.
The Rays were outhit by the Astros in terms of batting average, .260 to .201, and they didn't get any run-scoring hits with a runner in scoring position in their final 38 innings of that series. They were heavily reliant on home runs -- 71.9 percent of their runs this postseason have come via long balls, by far the highest percentage by a World Series-bound club. Their breakout star Randy Arozarena launched four home runs against the Astros en route to winning the ALCS MVP award, but the Rays will need other hitters to step up in the World Series.
This is where Choi should come in. The Rays have so much offensive depth that manager Kevin Cash has moved his pieces up and down the lineup, but Choi has been a constant presence in the heart of the order. He has batted either cleanup or fifth in every game that he has started.
For the entire postseason this year, starting with the Wild Card Series at the end of September, Choi is slashing .290/.436/.516 with two homers, four RBIs, five runs and seven walks.
Choi has also flashed the leather at first base, digging out multiple throws in the dirt while showing off his flexibility with acrobatic stretches.
Choi, who bats left-handed, has struggled in the past against left-handed pitchers and was benched at the start Games 1 and 6 of the ALCS when the Astros started lefty Framber Valdez.
Choi did get some at-bats against southpaw relievers during the series, and even picked up a single against lefty Blake Taylor in the eighth inning of Game 7.
The Dodgers will send their left-handed ace Clayton Kershaw to start Game 1. The three-time Cy Young Award winner hasn't been quite as dominant in postseasons, with a career 11-12 mark and a 4.31 ERA in 35 playoff outings. In three starts this postseason, Kershaw is 2-1 with a 3.32 ERA, plus 23 strikeouts in 19 innings.
If Choi is benched against Kershaw at the start of Game 1, right-handed Yandy Diaz will likely take Choi's spot at first base and in the middle of the lineup, as was the case during the ALCS.
But Cash may opt to keep both Choi and Diaz in the lineup, perhaps moving Choi down to the fifth spot in the order and put Diaz in as the designated hitter. Diaz can also handle third base, but Joey Wendle has been excellent at the hot corner this postseason, meaning Diaz will mostly hit DH or be in platoon with Choi at first base.
During the truncated, 60-game regular season, in which clubs only play teams in their own division and in the corresponding division in the other league, the Rays and the Dodgers didn't face each other.
For his career, Choi is 4-for-16 with a home run and three RBIs in four games against the Dodgers. (Yonhap)