Inside a batting cage in Comerica Park, Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar stood across from pitching coach Dave Eiland on Wednesday and cradled a baseball in his right hand. For the first time in nearly six months, he was able to play catch.
“It feels great,” he said. “I was just excited to put the costume back on and go make some throws.”
A partially torn ulnar collateral ligament stole Hochevar’s season. He underwent Tommy John surgery in March. He spent his summer watching his teammates chase a playoff berth while laboring through his own rehabilitation. He set Wednesday’s date as a milestone for himself, using it as motivation over the intervening weeks.
As rain soaked the city, Hochevar went to work with Eiland. He threw two sets of 25 times from a distance of 45 feet. The act marked the opening of another lengthy progression, accelerating from twice-weekly games of catch to bullpen sessions. Hochevar estimated he could pitch off a mound by January and be ready for the 2015 season.
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“I’d like to think I could go into spring training like just any other time,” he said. “Especially with the timing of it, with it happening in March, and having my surgery done in March. That would be almost a full year.”
His future remains undecided. He will be a free agent after this season. He would like to stay in Kansas City.
The Royals selected him with the first pick of the 2006 draft. He struggled as a starter for years before finding a niche as a reliever in 2013. At times, manager Ned Yost has wondered how dynamic his bullpen might have been this season if the team had Hochevar, who struck out 82 batters in 702/3 innings with a 1.92 ERA last season.
The club tendered Hochevar a one-year contract worth $5.21 million for this season. As a free agent coming off injury, he would likely merit a cheaper, incentive-based deal. Hochevar indicated he had not had any discussions yet with the Royals.
“That’ll all be in the offseason,” Hochevar said. “We need to keep our nose to the grindstone right now, and win us a championship. All that stuff will take care of itself.”
Hochevar has become a more consistent presence on road trips in the second half of the season. He has grown accustomed to watching each night, unable to aid his teammates. But he does not enjoy it.
“I knew that was going to be the toughest part,” Hochevar said. “But there’s nowhere in the rulebook that says I can’t be in the dogpile. You just do what you can and root the guys on and hope for the best.”