Kovacevic: Is Kang at shortstop realistic? ☕


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Gregory Polanco congratulates Jung Ho Kang on his home run Sunday in Milwaukee. - AP

MILWAUKEE -- Jung Ho Kang smoked a baseball 457 feet Sunday, off the giant Miller Lite ad high above Miller Park's center-field batter's eye, and the man barely batted an eyelash upon emerging from the box. Or, for that matter, when I asked him about it after the Pirates' 5-2 loss to the Brewers.

"It was good," he replied through an interpreter.

It actually was. Not only on its own merit but also in that it was a two-run shot that defined the game for the better part of the afternoon:

But when I brought up the following play, in the field an inning later, that one didn't require an interpreter of any kind:

I don't know Korean for 'pickin' it,' but that's how I phrased the question nonetheless, and Kang's smile -- seldom seen for a couple years now -- betrayed he knew precisely what I'd meant before any processing.

"It is comfortable," he'd say through the interpreter. "It's not hard, to play shortstop."

Come on, I admonished, looking right at Kang and challenging him for more.

"I don't know," he'd confess through another smile. "Just a play."

Maybe it was just a play. Kang has a history at shortstop dating to his years in South Korea. But his return to Pittsburgh, complicated on so many levels, was muddied further when Clint Hurdle acknowledged over the offseason that Kang had asked to not play shortstop, that he wanted to focus solely on third base.

Now, things are different. Kang was terrible offensively before being sent to Class AAA Indianapolis on one of those classic bogus-injury assignments. And even after tearing it up there -- 12 for 27 with a home run and three doubles in eight games -- this return evidently was going to have a different feel. Hurdle emphasized Saturday upon Kang's reinstatement that he'd have to "earn his way" back into regular duty, in large part because Colin Moran's hit so well the past three weeks.

As for playing shortstop, it doesn't appear as if Hurdle's asking as much as he's telling. This was his first start there since 2015, and it doesn't sound like it'll be the last.

"He made a couple plays," Hurdle said, referencing another sharp pursuit in the hole that didn't result in an out. "Add to that plastering the ball off the back of the wall out there ... that was a loud swing. He was competing out there today. He looked pretty good."

No need to get ahead of anything, but if Kang can be simply adequate at short -- and his reconstructive knee surgery three years ago still weighs heavily against that -- and his bat can regain form, that offers an option should Kevin Newman cool off. Or even if Newman doesn't.

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