Kang continues to thrive in key spots

Pirates shortstop delivers tiebreaking HR in ninth

Kang continues to thrive in key spots

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jung Ho Kang was glad he connected for one of those ultimate home runs, with two outs in the ninth inning of a tie ballgame. He just wished he didn't have to do it.

"I wish our games were easier," Kang said after the Pirates' 8-7 victory over the Twins that was anything but. "But I do always enjoy situations like that. When I hit it, I knew [it was gone]."

There was little doubt about the fate of that 1-2 slider from Minnesota closer Glen Perkins.

For one thing, because of the swing put on it by Kang, who had to go down and dig a ball perhaps 12 inches off the ground.

"That was a dynamic swing off one of the better closers in the game," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.

Which brings up the other thing: Kang specializes in late-game home runs off premier closers. He has only six home runs -- going easy on the power transition while focused on perfecting other aspects of his game -- but one of them has come in the seventh and the latest was his second in the ninth.

The latest metrics reveal Kang to be the Majors' second-best hitter against high-grade heat, fastballs 95 mph and above. So it should not be surprising that the short list of his home run victims include hard throwers like Trevor Rosenthal, Mike Fiers and now Perkins.

"My focus goes up at the end of tight games like this," conceded Kang, through interpreter H.K. Kim.

Kang's entire game has obviously picked up since he became a regular, mostly at shortstop, in the wake of the injuries to Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison. In his past 14 games, Kang is 21-for-51 (.412) and has lifted his season average to .289 -- second on the team to Francisco Cervelli, one point ahead of Andrew McCutchen.

"He's doing things he's probably done before, in a different place," Hurdle said, "He continues to grow. He expects a lot out of himself. He's happy that [hitting a game-winning homer] happened, but he's not surprised. It's been fun to watch him continue to match up at the best level he has ever played it."

Added Kang: "I'm definitely pleased that i've been getting this chance, and pleased that I have been able to play as I have."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer and on his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.