The enigma that is Royals right-hander Luke Hochevar offered up seven superb innings through intermittent rain Saturday night in a 5-0 victory over the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field.
This was the Hochevar the Royals have long believed can serve as a cornerstone in their rotation. The good Luke. The dominant Luke.
“We expect that,” left fielder Alex Gordon said. “The other couple of starts, that’s what we don’t expect. Everyone in here has confidence in Hochevar. Yeah, he’s had a couple of rough starts, but everyone just needs to relax and let him go out there and pitch.”
Yes, those last two starts.…
Hochevar hemorrhaged 16 runs and 19 hits in his two previous outings over 6 1/3 innings, which spiked his ERA to an even 9.00. He also surrendered seven runs to Cleveland in the first inning of the home opener.
“My last two weren’t what I wanted by any means,” he said. “But sometimes, things get tough, and you’ve just got to fight like crazy.… I try not to get caught up in (the criticism) or read it or whatever it is. I just try to go out and help this team win.”
What Saturday’s effort means next time, or the times beyond, is anyone’s guess. But on this night, Hochevar (3-3) yielded just three hits – all singles – while striking out five and walking one.
Hochevar said he didn’t scale back his repertoire, as had been suggested, or alter his basic game plan. He insisted he simply made better pitches.
“I just tried to stay within my approach,” Hochevar said, “continue to battle like crazy and make good pitches. It’s what my focus was from last year to spring training and into this year. Stay the course.”
The Royals staked Hochevar to a three-run lead before he threw the first of his 101 pitches. He nursed that cushion into the eighth, when the Royals put the game away by scoring twice against the Chicago bullpen.
Greg Holland and Aaron Crow closed out the victory which leaves the Royals, despite their 12-20 record, 5½ games behind first-place Cleveland in the American League Central Division.
The Royals are also 9-6 since ending their 12-game April skid. Imagine what might happen if their rotation stabilizes.
“Our five starting pitchers are probably the five most-important guys we’ve got,” manager Ned Yost said, “because they set the tone. We need to get that straightened out.
“Having Hoch set the tone tonight, and Bruce (Chen) set the tone (in last Wednesday’s victory over Boston), is big for us. We have to have that if we’re going to be successful.”
Chicago lefty Chris Sale (3-2) struggled initially in his return to the rotation after skipping a cycle when he reported elbow soreness in his two previous starts. He required 42 pitches to get through that three-run first.
Thereafter, Sale was fine: no runs and three hits from the second through the fifth before departing after 103 pitches. But Hochevar made those three early runs look like three times as many.
The Royals finished with 12 hits and, more importantly, were 6 for 13 with runners in scoring position. Jarrod Dyson, Billy Butler, Irving Falu, Alcides Escobar and Humberto Quintero each had two hits.
Sale started the game by throwing just one strike in his first 10 pitches, which resulted in successive walks to Dyson and Johnny Giavotella before Gordon loaded the bases with a single.
Butler then lined what should have been a two-run double into the right-field corner, but Giavotella broke slow from second – apparently believing Alex Rios had a play on the ball.
The result was merely a single, just one run in and the bases still loaded.
Jeff Francoeur hit a potential double-play grounder to second, but Gordon Beckham, after stepping on the base for the force, threw wildly to first. Giavotella scored on the grounder, and Gordon came across on the error.
It was 3-0.
“Sale was struggling with his command early,” Butler said. “The main thing is when we get Dyson on in the first, it’s big. He can make anything happen. Hopefully, the run support in the first made (Hochevar) relax a little bit.
“I don’t want to dampen anything he did today, but we were happy to get him some runs.”
Lineup shakeup — Struggling first baseman Eric Hosmer dropped to sixth in the lineup after batting third or fourth this season in each of his previous 30 starts. Yost also put third baseman Mike Moustakas on the bench for the second time in three games to rest a sore left hamstring.
Hosmer carried a .176 average into Saturday’s game, which roughly marked the one-fifth point of the schedule. He had 5 hits in his previous 49 at-bats.
“I did that because we’re facing a lefty and because he’s fighting it a little bit,” Yost said. “I’m not dropping him any lower than he is right now. We just need get him settled in.
“This kid is going to hit. I’ve got no doubt that this kid is going to be a phenomenal hitter in the big leagues.”
Yost said he expected Moustakas to return to the lineup this afternoon when the series concludes.