Kansas City Royals

Royals still wait for No. 1 Hochevar

KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Before you even ask, yes, Luke Hochevar's bruised left ankle is fine.

At least that's what Hochevar, who will start for the Kansas City Royals tonight against Detroit, has been saying since he was hit by a line drive in his last outing, an exhibition loss to Texas on Friday.

"It's not even an issue," Hochevar said after Monday's 8-4 loss to Detroit at Kauffman Stadium. "I haven't felt it since I got hit. There's no swelling, no bruising."

It's a good thing the ankle is the least of his concerns right now. This is clearly a big year for Hochevar, and the last thing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft needs is a distraction. He's trying to get off to a strong start and put a disappointing 2009 season behind him.

"Obviously, I have high expectations for myself," said Hochevar, a right-hander.

Hochevar didn't come close to meeting those expectations last season, when he posted a 7-13 record and a 6.55 ERA that ranked as the highest by anyone in either league who pitched at least 140 innings. He closed last season with a 1-10 record and an 8.21 ERA over his final 13 starts.

By all accounts, at the heart of Hochevar's struggles was his penchant for letting bad innings become worse. Last season, Hochevar gave up 67 of his 109 runs in just 17 innings. Take those out, and Hochevar managed a 3.00 ERA over 126 innings.

"I'd like for him to let things that crop up not get in his head as much as last year — because it did get into his head a little bit," manager Trey Hillman said.

A key to that, Hochevar admitted, is keeping his emotions under control.

"Sometimes my competitive nature takes over a little bit, and I start trying to go harder rather than smarter," Hochevar said.

The Royals also hope an offseason adjustment to his delivery will help. At the suggestion of pitching coach Bob McClure, Hochevar now taps the rubber with his right foot before launching into his delivery.

McClure suggested the adjustment so Hochevar could maintain proper alignment and load his full power and momentum for maximum effectiveness.

"It helps me stay back, helps me get gathered," said Hochevar, who believes the change will help him become more consistent with his mechanics.

McClure also said Hochevar has other things to work on as well.

"From watching all of his tapes again, I just think he threw too many good pitches, too many good strikes, when he had the guy in counts where he could put him away," said McClure, who added that Hochevar must also mix his pitches and locate his fastball a little better.

No matter what happens this season, it's safe to say Hochevar's collection of pitches probably won't be a problem. His big-time sinker, mid-90s fastball and two good breaking pitches immediately caught the eye of new Royals catcher Jason Kendall.

"He's got dominating stuff," Kendall said. "(He's got) a little bit of Zack (Greinke) in him, and his four-seam fastball is kind of like (Milwaukee ace) Yovani Gallardo's — it's got a lot of life on it, and it jumps on you pretty quick."

When Hochevar puts it all together, as he did in three particularly impressive wins last season, Kendall's praise especially rings true. Hochevar's 80-pitch, complete-game win over Cincinnati on June 12, a 13-strikeout performance against Texas on July 25 and three-hit shutout against the Chicago White Sox on Sept. 18 gave the Royals a taste of what he can do.

And tonight, armed with a slightly tweaked delivery and a desire to avoid those Twilight Zone-like innings, Hochevar said he's ready to take the first step toward making those sterling performances a regular occurrence.

"I feel like the more time you spend at this level, there's a comfort level that comes after a while," Hochevar said. "I feel like I've got enough innings under my belt and know the league and the hitters a little better. I'm definitely looking forward to it."