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Byung Ho Park staying optimistic in face of possible demotion

CHICAGO -- As Miguel Sano finishes up a week-long rehab stint at Triple-A Rochester, it appears increasingly likely Byung Ho Park will be sent to the minor leagues once Sano returns.

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Minnesota Twins designated hitter Byung Ho Park reacts to being called out on strikes with two men on base to end the third inning against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field. Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO - As Miguel Sano finishes up a week-long rehab stint at Triple-A Rochester, it appears increasingly likely Byung Ho Park will be sent to the minor leagues once Sano returns.

Asked Thursday morning about that possibility, Park chose his words carefully and unselfishly.

“I have no comment about that,” the Korean slugger said through a team interpreter. “It’s totally up to the team. I have no say in that. Whatever the decision is, I’ll follow.”

His season batting average down to .191 despite remaining tied for the team lead with 12 home runs, Park has hit just .123 with a .444 combined on-base/slugging percentage over the past six weeks. In his past 30 games, covering 120 plate appearances, Park has three home runs and nine runs batted in to go with 10 walks and 42 strikeouts.

He has been icing his right wrist after games for the past several weeks but both Park and Twins manager Paul Molitor downplayed that as a possible explanation for his downturn.

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“I don’t see a connection there,” Molitor said. “I know his wrist was a little sore, but he’s been pretty adamant, at least when I’ve asked him if it’s been any kind of a hindrance, and he says it’s good. He says it gets loose and it’s fine. He takes his game swings and he’s fine.”

Park, who iced his wrist after Wednesday night’s game despite not being in the lineup, said it had been “not too long” since he had taken to icing his wrist.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” said Park, who turns 30 on July 10. “Just one of those bruises and bumps you have as you go through the season. Everybody has them. Everybody has to deal with those minor problems. It doesn’t bother me when I’m playing the game, not at all.”

Hitless since homering off New York’s Michael Pineda on June 18 at Target Field, Park also brushed aside a suggestion that his sporadic playing time of late has made it more difficult for him to find and maintain his swing.

“I mean, as we all know, I’ve been struggling and I’ve not been contributing toward the team’s success,” he said. “The team needs to prepare the guys who can actually help the team in their starting lineup every day and everybody needs some playing time.”

The Twins moved Robbie Grossman into the designated hitter slot on Thursday with utility man Danny Santana starting in left field.

“The team is doing what’s best for the team,” Park said. “I have no complaint about that. I totally understand it. We’re in the middle of the season. If I say not being able to play every day kind of has a negative effect toward my swing and all that, that would be a terrible excuse. We’re in the middle of the season. I have to know a way to find myself as a hitter.”

Signed to a four-year, $12 million contract during the offseason, Park said he hasn’t noticed a change in the way he’s been pitched since homering nine times in his first 29 games.

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“Pitchers, they attack me in different ways every at-bat,” he said. “It’s not like they just change because I’m struggling. Every at-bat is different.”

Asked if he could see cause for optimism in his recent at-bats or if he was still searching, Park was typically upbeat.

“I just try to stay positive and optimistic,” he said. “I’m trying to find good in this struggle. I try to look at the big picture. I knew this was going to come.

“There was going to be a struggle period as I was making an adjustment to the big leagues here. It came now. It’s that time. I have to stay strong through this. I’m sure this is not the last year of my career. I’m not going to retire after the season. I’m trying to stay positive.”

Molitor has remained in regular contact with Park, even as his playing time has diminished and he tries to pull himself out of an 0-for-17 tailspin with 11 strikeouts.

“He understands,” Molitor said. “Communication, I think, has been good. I know it’s been burdensome for him not to perform up to the way he had hoped to. We continue to try to give him a little bit of perspective on what he’s been able to do as well as some of the things he’s still learning to try to do better over here.”

That power showed up early, but the contact rate has dropped along with his luck. Park has a .159 batting average on balls in play over the past six weeks. Over his first 32 games, it was .302.

“It’s tough,” Molitor said. “He’s a guy who somewhat culturally and somewhat just being a prideful man wants to make the Twins look good. He’s worried about letting people down, as a lot of young players do. We just try to keep him as strong mentally as we can. I think that’s been the hardest part for him.”

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Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang, Park’s close friend and former Nexen Heroes teammate, batted .182 through his first 12 games in 2015 but eventually took off en route to a third-place finish in National League Rookie of the Year voting.

Seattle Mariners slugger Dae-ho Lee, with 10 homers this year, has lifted his average 39 points in roughly the same six-week period that has plagued Park. And the Baltimore Orioles are getting good production out of contact-oriented outfielder Hyun Soon Kim (.339 average in 118 at-bats).

Does Park also struggle with daily comparisons to his fellow Koreans playing in the majors?

“I don’t think that that’s a huge deal for him,” Molitor said. “I think he knows that people are watching. There’s maybe some of that in the mix. Early in the year, when he was doing well, was he thinking about those things? No.

“I think he knows about what Kang had to go through last year between injuries and the rough start. I asked him about does he talk to those guys much? They do a little, but they’re all convinced they can play here, so they just kind of tell each other to stay with it when one of them is not doing particularly well during a given time.”

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