Ask yourself as a Royals fan, after all you’ve been through, whether you’re willing to risk a little optimism. If so, it might be time to invest a little hope that Luke Hochevar is turning a corner.
Hochevar pitched eight strong innings Wednesday afternoon and helped the Royals snap a three-game losing streak with a 5-2 victory over the Texas Rangers at Kauffman Stadium.
And that’s solid in and of itself.
Now consider that Hochevar’s start was his first since a complete-game victory last Thursday at Cleveland. As such, it served as a test: He had two complete games last season and, each time, got rocked in his next start.
Not this time.
Hochevar, 5-2, gave up two runs and six hits before Joakim Soria closed out the victory by recording his 100th career save. This is a major step for Hochevar, right?
“Absolutely,” he agreed. “The process that I’ve gone through hasn’t been the way that I wanted, but as long as you get where you want to go, that’s what is important.
“More and more, it’s just touches. Every time I take the mound, I just feel more and more comfortable. I feel more and more confident. Really, it’s just a matter of continuing to build on that.”
The two strong starts came after manager Ned Yost, in his second game after replacing Trey Hillman, refused to yank Hochevar in a disastrous seventh inning May 15 in a 5-4 loss to the White Sox.
Yost didn’t hide the message from the public, either. He informed everyone that if Hochevar is ever to reach his potential as a front-line starter, he needs to work through such troubles on his own.
Fast forward Wednesday to the sixth inning.
Hochevar had just surrendered a 2-1 lead on a one-out triple by Michael Young. The next two hitters were Ian Kinsler and Vladimir Guerrero – the latter had already menaced the Royals for five homers and 12 RBIs this season in five previous games.
“When I get in tough situations,” Hochevar said, “instead of trying to dial it up, I’m trying not to even think about the situation. I just need to continue to pitch the way I’ve been pitching. That means focusing on the hitter.”
Voila: Ground ball to third by Kinsler; ground ball to short by Guerrero. Young died at third base with the potential go-ahead run, and the Royals responded with two runs in their half of the inning against Texas starter Scott Feldman.
Billy Butler reversed the momentum with a leadoff homer, and Willie Bloomquist delivered a sacrifice fly. The Royals led 4-2 and went on to salvage a split in the two-game series and beat the Rangers for the first time this season in six games.
Hochevar permitted single runs in the second and sixth innings but experienced few other slips in a 99-pitch performance that included four strikeouts and no walks.
“There are different phases in your development,” Yost said. “There are different things that you learn. It’s like walking up stairs. You learn something. You take a step. All of the ingredients are there for him to be an ultra-successful American League pitcher.”
Soria got his 11th save in 13 opportunities and avenged a rough outing May 6 in Texas when he blew a save in a 13-12 loss by surrendering successive two-out homers to Josh Hamilton and Guerrero in the eighth inning.
“The last time that I faced them,” Soria said, “they got me pretty good. I like revenge.”
Here it was: Soria started the ninth by retiring Guerrero and Hamilton on grounders. Soria then completed a one-two-three inning when Nelson Cruz grounded out to short.
Feldman, 2-5, allowed four runs and seven hits in 6 2/3 innings.
Butler had two of the Royals’ nine hits, including that leadoff home run in the sixth inning. He went two for four and is now batting .348. Mitch Maier also had two hits in capping an eight-for-18 homestand that raised his average from .237 to .270.
Bloomquist subbed again for new father David DeJesus as the starting right fielder and drove in the Royals’ final two runs. He had a two-out RBI double in the eighth against reliever Derek Holland.
It wasn’t the offense, though, that enabled the Royals finally to beat the Rangers.
“We put up five runs today and (before) five runs haven’t held up,” Butler said. “The difference is Hoch threw a great game today. He just kept pounding the zone and getting good results.”
That’s fact. The optimism is that it can continue.
“Some times,” Yost said, “you just need to stop and point out an ingredient. Sharp guys like Hoch will sit back and digest it in their mind, and it helps. He’s done that the last two starts.
“It’s not going to be like that every start, but he’s walking up those stairs.”