SURPRISE, Ariz. — The realization dawned on Luke Hochevar on Thursday afternoon inside a doctor’s office in Los Angeles.
Neal ElAttrache, the Dodgers team physician, presented Hochevar with three options for the partially-torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow: A short-term shutdown, a long-term shutdown and then “what I didn’t want to hear,” Hochevar said.
The third option was the only realistic one. Hochevar will undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery, which robs the team of a dynamic reliever and could mark the end of Hochevar’s Royals career. He will be a free agent after this season, but his thoughts had yet to stray from his own team.
“The toughest part about it is we’re primed this year to win,” Hochevar said. “You want to be part of that dog pile in September. The way the team’s shaping up, we’re going to win. That’s not a doubt. From every standpoint, I want to be a part of it. It’s just not going to happen.”
Hochevar stood outside the clubhouse of the only professional team he has ever known. He wore a black beanie on his head and a blue sleeve over his tarnished right arm. He had shared a similar message with his teammates earlier in the day, and still he appeared close to tears. “He feels like he let the team down,” said Bruce Chen, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2008.
Instead, Hochevar’s elbow betrayed him. He felt pain on Monday afternoon. An MRI revealed a ligament that was at least 50 percent torn, along with corresponding tears in the muscle around the elbow. The damage was too great to overcome.
“The chances of him making it back this year and pitching effectively for our organization are probably a long shot,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “So might as well move forward.”
Moore refused to rule out a reunion. Hochevar never lived up to his billing as the first overall selection in 2006 draft. But he found a niche in the bullpen last season, striking out more than a batter per inning and posting a 1.92 ERA.
The Royals can weather losing Hochevar. Bullpen depth is an organizational strength. Still, the injury stings from an emotional perspective — and a monetary one. The Royals tendered Hochevar a $5.21 million contract for 2014. The team does not possess insurance on his deal. “It’s a blow to us financially,” Moore said. “Obviously, you want to be able to maximize all your resources.”
During the summer of 2010, doctors discovered a sizable tear in Hochevar’s ligament. Manager Ned Yost estimated the ligament was torn somewhere between 25 to 40 percent. Hochevar opted for rehabilitation over surgery, and said “it’s been a battle for four years” to stay healthy.
“I knew this day was coming after the first time I hurt it,” he said. “I knew it was coming.”
The Royals also understood the risk. But Moore insisted Hochevar’s physical examination after the 2013 season “was very good. There was no reason to think this would occur.” Hochevar refused to regret his decision to forgo surgery all those years ago.
“It will never be a doubt in my mind,” he said. He added, “From the information that I gathered, the odds were on my side that I was going to make it.”
He was right, but only for so long. A date for the procedure has not been set. Hochevar needs treatment to reduce the swelling in the joint. He hopes to stay with the team during the season. His roots are deep. He lockers near Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, the two other longest-tenured Royals.
“They’ve been through the hardest times,” Yost said. “And now, when we get to a point where we’re a pretty darn good baseball team, in a place to where we’re going to be able to compete, you really want them to be a part of it — on the field.”
In the morning, Hochevar sat next to Gordon in their clubhouse corner. Hochevar lamented his role in the coming season. If the Royals celebrate a playoff berth, a feat unaccomplished since 1985, he would be a skinny guy rehabbing. Gordon reminded Hochevar he would still be a part of the team.
Teammates could only offer so much to offset the devastation. Chen offered to bring Hochevar’s family dinner one night, and help clean their rental home. The gestures were small, the sort designed to tell Hochever “he will not be forgotten,” Chen said.
Outside the complex, here in what could be his final spring as a Royal, Hochevar tried to hide his anguish. He had feared this day would come, but still the timing crushed him.
“It was probably inevitable that it would go,” he said. “It’s just a bad year for it to go. When we’re primed and ready to rock and roll. It’s not a good time.”