In Luke Hochevar’s mind, the situation called for precision. He could not give in to the dangerous heart of the Blue Jays’ offense. He could not afford to pick at the strike zone. One mistake could let Toronto back into the game. The most tense moments in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series were coming up next.
There were the moments Hochevar missed last season, the opportunities that never came, like this one in the Royals’ 14-2 victory at the Rogers Centre on Tuesday. Last October, as the Royals made the playoffs and advanced to the World Series for the first time in 29 years, Hochevar could not pitch. He was still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. His playoff drought never ended.
So as Hochevar entered the game in the bottom of the fifth, replacing starter Chris Young, he assessed the situation: two outs. A baserunner on first. Toronto MVP candidate Josh Donaldson at the plate. The Royals leading by three runs.
“You just want to keep it right there,” Hochevar said.
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Royals manager Ned Yost did not want Young facing Donaldson for a third time. His instincts proved correct. On a 1-1 count, Hochevar snapped off a 90-mph cutter. Donaldson lifted a soft pop-up into foul territory. As the baseball fell in Eric Hosmer’s glove, Hochevar slapped his glove and pumped his fist.
“You have the heart of the lineup coming up,” Hochevar said. “So your only thought process is, come in and execute quality pitches.”
After retiring Donaldson in the fifth, Hochevar came back in the sixth and worked through the heart of the Blue Jays’ lineup, coaxing designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion into a double play and retiring first baseman Chris Colabello on a grounder to short. He worked 1 1/3 innings, picked up his first postseason victory and kept the Blue Jays at bay before the Royals buried Toronto with an onslaught of offense in the later innings.
“It just shows you the depth we have in the bullpen,” left fielder Alex Gordon said. “We can bring a guy like Hoch in, with his kind of stuff, in the fifth inning to get you out of a jam and bring him back in the sixth.”
Hochevar also continued a spotless postseason. In 5 2/3 innings, Hochevar has allowed no runs and just four hits. The numbers include two key outs as the Royals erased a 3-0 lead and shocked Toronto 6-3 in Game 2.
“It’s very rewarding,” Hochevar said, standing in front of his locker Tuesday night. “Like I’ve said a thousand times before, I’d rather experience what we experienced last year hurt than not experience it healthy.
“Now to have the opportunity to experience it healthy, it’s just as sweet.”