Here was an enigma named Luke Hochevar on full display Wednesday night in his simultaneous ability to tantalize and confound the Royals and, really, everyone else.
Hochevar managed both extremes in this 9-2 loss to Boston at Kauffman Stadium.
For four innings, he rolled through the Red Sox; yielded just one hit and a pair of walks while striking out five. And then, abruptly and completely, the wheels came off in a six-run fifth inning that saw eight straight batters reach safely.
It wasn’t unfamiliar stuff.
Never miss a local story.
Hochevar owns three of the Royals’ top pitching performances this season, including a three-hit shutout of Chicago in his last outing, but he also, after this loss, sports a 7-11 record and a 5.98 ERA.
“It has (been like that this season),” he admitted, “but you don’t sit on that or fret on that. You just keep grinding. You keep battling your butt off. You keep competing as hard as you can.
“That’s what I’ve been doing, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. Once it comes, it will be satisfying.”
The Royals want to believe it’s simply part of a learning curve before Hochevar validates his selection as the first overall pick in the 2006 draft. And yet
“Certainly, it’s troubling,” manager Trey Hillman admitted. “You want him to go deeper in a ballgame. It’s as simple as we discussed; he’s just got to make pitches in key situations.”
Boston’s six-run fifth erased a 2-0 lead the Royals built despite wasting a bundle of scoring opportunities against Red Sox ace Josh Beckett, who surrendered 12 hits in six innings.
“Tough pitcher,” left fielder David DeJesus said. “He’s able to get out of jams. He has the good curveball that he was able to spot today on the outside corner to lefties. We got two (runs). It didn’t hold.”
Beckett, 16-6, ended five of his innings with two runners on base. Hideki Okajima, Billy Wagner and Jonathan Papelbon closed out the Red Sox’s 90th victory and reduced their magic number for clinching a playoff berth to five games.
Hochevar allowed six runs and eight hits in five innings. Rookie reliever Carlos Rosa surrendered David Ortiz’s three-run homer in the ninth.
The Royals, 63-89, lost for only the fourth time in their last 16 games and maintained a 1½-game lead over Cleveland in the battle to avoid last place in the American League Central Division.
The four-game series concludes tonight with the Royals having a chance to win a fifth straight series after winning just three of their previous 31 series.
Boston collected seven of its 12 hits in the fifth inning. The key blows were Jacoby Ellsbury’s two-run triple, and Jason Bay’s two-run single. Dustin Pedroia and Ortiz also contributed RBI singles.
“We see a lot of pitches,” said Ortiz, who finished with four RBIs. “That’s what makes us good. When you see a lot of pitches, you get an idea what you want to do at the plate. That’s why our second or third at-bat you see our production getting better. We know what we’re dealing with.”
Mitch Maier and Yuniesky Betancourt each had three of the Royals’ 12 hits.
Beckett surrendered two runs in the fourth inning after John Buck led off with a double past third. Buck moved to third on Alex Gordon’s grounder to first before Betancourt pumped an RBI triple past Ellsbury in center.
DeJesus followed with an RBI single for a 2-0 lead.
The Royals might have had more, but DeJesus was thrown out while trying to steal second before Maier and Butler produced singles. Beckett ended the inning by retiring Brayan Peña on a grounder to second. Hochevar gave it all back and more in that dreadful fifth.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I told myself just to continue to do the same thing. I went out and tried to continue to make pitches. I didn’t think my ball was up in the zone or that my ball was over the middle of the plate. I felt I was still making good pitches.
J.D. Drew started everything by punching a one-out single over a leaping Betancourt before Gonzalez blooped a single to right.
“Those were good pitches,” Hochevar said, “and they fell in for hits. But I’ve got to find a way to stop that and keep us in the ballgame. It’s a tough lineup but, the bottom line is, you’ve got to go out and execute.”
Instead, it only got worse.