Luke Hochevar’s first throwing sessions after Tommy John surgery came during the Royals’ playoff run last season, and manager Ned Yost was so encouraged he wondered if immediate help had arrived.
It hadn’t, but Hochevar’s recovery this spring has hit all of its targets, and Tuesday’s was an important one. He faced hitters for the first time in a year in a 20-pitch batting practice.
“Today was probably the first day I stepped on the gas,” Hochevar said. “My intensity was up. With hitters in there, that automatically happens.
“But it felt great.”
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Looked great, too.
“It’s all stepping up the progression ladder and getting into a game,” Yost said. “But his stuff was very good. Real good curveball. Real sharp. Tight spin on it. Nice change-up. Good velocity on his fastball. They were all good to see.”
That’s positive news, but it doesn’t necessarily mean Hochevar is on track to begin the season with the Royals.
Yost said earlier in the week that Hochevar could start the season on the disabled list if he wasn’t ready for opening day but “it’s going to be real soon afterwards” that he’d be with the club.
Whenever that happens, Hochevar will only strengthen what became established as baseball’s best bullpen last season.
Closer Greg Holland and eighth- and seventh-inning specialists Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera combined to pitch 204 1/3 innings with 258 strikeouts. As a group, they surrendered three home runs, with none by Davis and Herrera.
A year earlier, Hochevar had been moved from his starting role to become the eighth-inning specialist, and his career fortunes were reversed.
Out of the pen, Hochevar went 5-2 with a 1.92 ERA with 82 strikeouts in 70 1/3 innings.
He was set to resume that role last season when he threw a curveball in a spring training game against the White Sox, heard a pop and felt a burn. He finished the inning, but the next day his elbow had swollen and he would need surgery.
In 2010, Hochevar suffered a ligament tear in his elbow and missed about 2 1/2 months. He was part of the Royals rotation in 2011 and 2012 before his move to the bullpen, and there was speculation that with an embarrassment of relief-pitching riches, the gang may not be all back this season.
But in December, Hochevar signed a two-year deal with the Royals worth $10 million. He could have started over elsewhere, but the second-longest-tenured Royal after Alex Gordon didn’t give it much of a second thought.
“This is all that I know, and it’s all that I need to know,” Hochevar said last month about the organization that made him the overall top pick in 2006. “When you get to free agency, everything it seems is greener on the other side. But I knew better.
“I knew what I had here in Kansas City.”
When he returns, another power arm will be available out of the pen, even if it might not be opening day.
All Hochevar knows now is another scheduled batting practice before the weekend. Then, perhaps a simulated inning, a minor-league game before a big-league spring training game. Nothing rushed, steps up the progression ladder, as Yost says.
“It would be disappointing for sure if that happened, but at the same time, as long as I’m ready to go for about the entire season, that’s what important,” Hochevar said. “The competitive nature takes over and you want to be as ready as you can as fast as you can.
“But I have to do this right. If you rush it, there can be setbacks and then it takes longer than it normally would.”