Meet baseball's flame-throwingest rookie relievers: the Reds' Scott Williamson, 23, and the Diamondbacks' Byung-Hyun Kim, who at 20 is the majors' youngest player. Last week Williamson struck out all six Dodgers he faced, to tie a National League record and put an exclamation point on a month in which he fanned 24 in 18? innings and had an ERA of 0.00. Though he was no phenom in college, where a 4.31 ERA was his best showing in three years at Tulane and Oklahoma State, Williamson became a star in less than two seasons in the minors. This year he was a non-roster invitee to Cincinnati's spring training camp, where his 97-and 98-mph heaters had scouts shaking their radar guns in disbelief.
"I'm throwing harder now," says Williamson, a converted starter who lives in Friendswood, Texas, a couple of minutes drive from Nolan Ryan's ranch. "When you're a closer, you can just go out there and let it go." Yet his secret is that he's been throwing easier. Reds pitching coach Don Gullett, one of the guys with whom Williamson now shares the league record of six straight strikeouts, persuaded him to take a little off his fastball for better control. He did—and hitters still couldn't catch up to it. To make matters worse for Reds opponents, Williamson has a secret weapon, a split-fingered fastball he might use only once in an outing. He learned the pitch from the dad of a college teammate, a fellow by the name of Bruce Sutter.
Kim, a submariner from South Korea who zipped through Arizona's minor league chain in two months, has a trick pitch of his own. It's a riser—a mutant slider that seems to go up as it reaches the batter. "My dream is to strike out Sammy, McGwire, Mo Vaughn and Mike Piazza," Kim said in the bullpen at Shea Stadium after being called up from Tucson last week. A day later, in his big league debut, he whiffed Piazza to earn the save in an 8-7 win over the Mets.
Though he's three years younger than the Reds' rookie, Kim's feats are already Williamsonic. While pitching for South Korea's national team last June, Kim fanned 15 in 16? innings against the U.S. Olympic team. He struck out 12, including eight in a row, in an Asian Games outing against China in December. "He comes at you from tough angles and throws strikes," a frustrated Piazza said last Saturday.
"He threw Piazza a couple of Nintendo sliders," said Diamondbacks catcher Damian Miller after Kim's debut, "the ones you see in the video games with the huge bend on them."
Neither Williamson nor Kim has become his team's official closer yet, but both appear to have the right stuff. The folks back in Friends-wood are mighty proud of their guy, and so are the folks in Kim's hometown, Kwangsanku Songjung-dong.