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Hyun-Jin Ryu brings sense of urgency

LOS ANGELES -- Hyun-Jin Ryu didn't make the sharpest first impression with his teammates and coaches when he showed up in spring training and nearly got lapped in the pitchers' first conditioning run. There Ryu was on a chilly morning in the desert, dead last, huffing and puffing to catch up with the pack.

As they say, it's not how you start, but how you finish.

In Ryu's case, though, it has been about how he was starting.

The Los Angeles Dodgers weren't exactly thrilled when, against the Atlanta Braves in his first postseason start, Ryu took the mound with his usual laid-back vibe and did what he often does, allow early runs. The Braves scored two on him in that first inning, extending a frustrating pattern.

Batters hit .308 against Ryu in the first inning this season. He had a 5.10 ERA in the first and a 2.61 ERA in all other innings combined.

As good as Ryu had been this season -- and he'd be in any conversation about the most underrated pitchers in the National League -- the Dodgers felt they had to get a message across after that Game 3 start in the National League Division Series. It wasn't about nerves, even though Ryu looked jittery during that game. They figured those would either work themselves out or they wouldn't.

The message they wanted to send was about urgency. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt was the one who delivered that message, in the words of catcher A.J. Ellis, "challenging" Ryu. It may have been relayed through interpreter Martin Kim, but it got across as if through telepathy.

"Just go as hard as you can for as long as you can and the best that you can, and see how it goes," was how Honeycutt summarized it.

Ryu didn't work his way into his stuff in Monday night's 3-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals that kept the Dodgers' World Series hopes from flickering. Ryu's first pitch was a 93-mph fastball. His fifth pitch hit 94. By the ninth pitch, he was striking out Carlos Beltran with a 95-mph four-seamer.

That's not really who he is, either. Ryu is a finesse lefty with a changeup that neutralizes right-handed hitters, and a sneaky curveball. The Dodgers saw the kind of fire from their normally happy-go-lucky pitcher that they hadn't seen since he faced the Cincinnati Reds and their Korean star, Shin-Soo Choo, in a game that was televised live back in the players' homeland and treated like the Super Bowl in Seoul.

"He came out on a mission tonight, from the first batter, first pitch of the game," Ellis said.

Ryu gave the Dodgers seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits and striking out four. If things turn out well in the coming days, it may have been the game that turned the tide of a series that was tilting steeply in St. Louis' favor, the Cardinals already having eked out two wins over Dodgers aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

With the season on the line, the Dodgers could be turning to Ryu once again. He would be the starting pitcher if the series reaches a seventh games. After Monday's game, that's a far more palatable thought for the Dodgers than it was eight days ago at Dodger Stadium, when he didn't make it into the fourth inning against the Braves. Ryu became the first Dodgers starting pitcher to go at least seven innings without allowing a run in the postseason since Orel Hershiser in the 1988 NLCS.

Up until Monday, Ryu's postseason legacy was relentlessly nibbling on the outside corner, giving up hit after hit and making a couple of frantic fielding mistakes. He missed the bag covering first and rushed a throw home when he had no chance of getting the runner. It's because Ryu normally appears so calm that those moments were somewhat jarring to his teammates. Ryu never really seemed ruffled, even making his first major league start, the first Korean professional player to jump directly to the major leagues.

"I think he was pretty nervous the first game against the Braves and I think he kind of told himself, 'That's not going to happen again,' just to be himself," Mark Ellis said. "Him being himself is really good."

If not for some dynamic seasons from young players Jose Fernandez and teammate Yasiel Puig, Ryu would have been a pretty comfortable front-runner to win the NL Rookie of the Year this season. Ryu finished tied with Stephen Strasburg for ninth in the league with a 3.00 ERA. Where Greinke and Kershaw were the hammers of the Dodgers' rotation, Ryu was the final nail.

But, whereas Kershaw and Greinke each have an intense focus on their game days, Ryu's focus can tend to meander from time to time. Honeycutt said there were "several times" this season that Dodgers manager Don Mattingly had to give Ryu a little prod.

"Everybody needs a little edge to him," Honeycutt said.