Vahe Gregorian

Anatomy of a transformation: Luke Hochevar wins World Series for Royals

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Luke Hochevar (44) pitches in the bottom of the 10th inning during Sunday's World Series baseball game on November 1, 2015 at Citi Field in Queens, N.Y.
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Luke Hochevar (44) pitches in the bottom of the 10th inning during Sunday's World Series baseball game on November 1, 2015 at Citi Field in Queens, N.Y. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Surrounded by bedlam early Monday morning at Citi Field, amid the screaming and preening and hugging and cavorting of teammates, a solitary figure crouched and stared at the ground, overcome by all that had unfolded.

Of all the vivid, poignant images in the wake of the Royals’ revival and enchanting World Series victory, perhaps this vignette most captured the story at the core of this:

At its heart, the team that delivered the Royals’ first championship since 1985 was about redemption and persistence and the human spirit.

The masters of the astounding comeback are composed of that character through and through; the stuff that coursed through the collective bloodstream first flowed in each individual one, too.

“They all have a story,” general manager Dayton Moore said, “and it’s a story that’s very special.”

The man in this particular scene is Luke Hochevar, the winning pitcher in the game that absolved decades of futility, acquitted the work of Moore and left none other than George Brett calling this the best Royals team “ever!”

Slow start

Hochevar is a kind, gentle and gracious man who, alas, had been the vocal focal point of fan frustration with the seemingly perpetual state of ineptitude that was the Royals.

That was because Hochevar is the only overall No. 1 pick in franchise history, plucked after Moore was hired but before he officially began work in 2006.

So he forever will be enmeshed with the start of Moore’s “process.”

That concept was easy to mock when it was moving at a glacial pace in an Instagram world, and when Hochevar went 8-16 in 2012 … and began being booed 16 minutes after his first pitch in the home opener.

He was widely considered a bust, and years of failure to launch only were amplified by the successes of All-Star pitchers the Royals passed over for him in that draft: Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer.

When the Royals moved Hochevar to the bullpen in 2013, even Moore said, “It’s not the script that Hoch had for his career. It’s not the script that the Royals had when they drafted him No. 1.”

A look back in photos and video as the Kansas City Royals clinched the ALCS title, and defeated the New York Mets in five games to win their first World Series Championship since 1985.

Just the same, Moore thought Hochevar having a chance “to slow things down a little bit” in the bullpen could be beneficial.

To skeptical ears, he even ventured to say that he thought Hochevar could become “dominant” in a relief role.

For his part, Hochevar then looked at it this way: “If you sit back and you look at something as a failure, or however you view something, your perception of the situation is what it’s going to end up being. That’s why you don’t view it as anything negative. You view it as an opportunity to help your club, an opportunity to get better and go out and work.

“So what you do is you take the situation you’re in, you deal with it and do the best you can. Because the main thing is, is this club getting to the playoffs? Is this team winning? That’s the bottom line.”

That would all prove prophetic, but, of course, not so simply.

After reinventing himself with a 1.92 ERA in relief that year, Hochevar suffered an injury in spring training that made him miss the 2014 season.

He cried openly as he talked that day in Surprise, Ariz., mostly because he wanted to be in the dogpile when the Royals finally made a postseason run.

Even mindful of his arm after Tommy John surgery, Hochevar managed to jump in a few of those last season, anyway:

“I’d have to have been dead to stay out of that joker,” he said, laughing, the day before Game 1 of this year’s World Series.

His recovery from surgery made for a few tentative months this season, but by the postseason Hochevar came to life as never before in the big leagues.

In nine appearances, he surrendered no runs and six hits and was the two-inning bridge to Wade Davis’ save in the decisive game.

Overcoming the odds

Hochevar is not the most indispensable Royal, but he was a vital cog on a team whose every part made it greater than the sum — as unforgettably stated by Jonny Gomes during the celebration at Union Station on Tuesday.

“Cy Young winner? Not on our team — beat him,” he said. “Rookie of the year? Not on our team. We beat him.

“MVP of the whole league?” he added, turning to face the team. “Sorry, guys, not on our team. But we beat that guy, too!”

In the end, they beat ’em all in part because of a group dynamic forged and lacquered in resolve.

That enabled them to win a record eight postseason games by coming from behind — including several of the preposterous variety.

Much of this is scientifically inexplicable, starting with the fact that Alcides Escobar’s tools do not much match the demands of the leadoff spot and that he nonetheless excelled there.

But maybe the characteristic makes more sense when you go up and down the roster and think about the sorts of things each player faced to be here in this moment.

An abiding love for the game always was part of this mojo, and that only was intensified by an obvious feeling for one another that started with the nucleus of the team growing up together.

Consider what some challenges faced said about the individual makeup of the team:

▪ After reaching the major leagues, Alex Gordon had to move from third base to the outfield to find himself. He also willed his way back from a hideous groin injury late in the season.

▪ Like Hochevar, the now-peerless Davis worked through discouraging times as a starter before becoming what he is. He’s also driven by the memory of his brother, Dustin Huguley, who died two years ago. Davis switched from jersey No. 22 to No. 17 to honor him, and last year he told The Star’s Andy McCullough he often talks on the mound with the sibling who once doubled as his catcher.

▪ Mike Moustakas was so uncomfortable at the plate in 2014 that he was sent down to Class AAA Omaha. He returned to hit a club record five home runs last postseason and became an All-Star this season, which was all the more moving when his mother, Connie, died shortly after. After that, Moustakas drew her initials in the dirt for every at-bat and played to honor her memory.

▪ Ryan Madson hadn’t pitched in the major leagues since 2011, and Kris Medlen hadn’t since 2013 after his second Tommy John surgery. Each seized the opportunity the Royals gave him.

▪ Chris Young missed all of 2013 as he contended with thoracic outlet syndrome, and he had few takers this season despite being American League comeback player of the year with Seattle a year ago. The Royals signed him late in spring training, and he was a key factor in October in the wake of his father’s death in late September.

▪ In the name of baseball, Kendrys Morales tried but failed to escape Cuba 12 times before finally making it out a little over a decade ago. That perseverance, Moore said earlier this season, “tells you he’s determined.” So did his two years of toiling to recover from a freak leg injury suffered when he stomped on home plate when he was with the Angels in 2010.

▪ Edinson Volquez underwent a name change and a personality makeover with the Texas Rangers and Tommy John surgery and a 50-game suspension with Cincinnati. But his greatest challenge was pitching in two World Series games, one on the day his father died unbeknownst to him, and the second days after he’d attended the funeral. Like Young and Moustakas, Volquez felt the presence of his late parent with him.

▪ Danny Duffy once quit the Royals for unspecified personal reasons and later had to have Tommy John surgery; reserve catcher Drew Butera was in a funk in Class AA ball with the Mets that left him praying in church for help … a day before a trade to Minnesota changed everything.

▪ Paulo Orlando, who turned 30 the day the Royals won the World Series, spent nine years in the minor leagues, and Alex Rios, 34, was the longest currently active player in baseball not to have played in a postseason.

▪ Ben Zobrist moped around the night of his last high school game, figuring it was the last one he’d ever play … until he used $50 in birthday money from his grandparents to pay for a tryout camp that led to everything that followed.

▪ At the opposite end of the 2006 draft from Hochevar was Jarrod Dyson, a 50th-round draft pick. Dyson is driven by his childhood in McComb, Miss., where he says “it’s not always good, and to make it out is a blessing. … So I’m trying to make it for others that are down in my town, that really can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

There are many more stories of overcoming on this team, of course, including a number that have yet to be fully understood among players such as Escobar, Sal Perez and others from Latin American countries.

Now undoubtedly, other teams are brimming with players of similar grounding and obstacles faced.

But they didn’t become the best team in baseball this year to make it a season of vindication and validation for all.

Here, that includes owner David Glass, who with the hiring of Moore in 2006 put behind a miserly past and now so invests in his team that it had a bigger payroll than the Mets.

Here, that means Moore, who has gone from being mocked in 2013 for saying that “in some small way” he felt like the Royals already had won the World Series to being able to say it in the biggest way of all.

And that encompasses manager Ned Yost, who was fired in Milwaukee in September 2008 with the Brewers in first place and was the object of derision here until last year’s postseason run.

Now he has the most wins of any manager in team history, the only one to steer them to two World Series and on a trajectory to the Royals Hall of Fame.

In many ways, though, the one standing tallest and bestriding all this was the crouching Hochevar, whose character purged the caricatures of him … and the Royals.

Once cruelly denounced as the trademark of all that was wrong with the Royals, Hochevar stands now as the enduring and endearing lesson of all that proved right.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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