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Hochevar’s Perfection Ends Early

I don’t want to talk about last night. I suppose I have to, but I really don’t want to. Everything was going great through five innings, but when the sixth inning started, something strange happened. It’s almost like everybody in the stadium collectively looked at the scoreboard and realized what was happening and the typical hum of a small crowd quieted a bit. It wasn’t silence, but there was a definite decrease in the noise level at the stadium. Michael Brantley stepped to the plate and ended up hitting a solid single up the middle. People applauded Hochevar for his perfect game/no-hit attempt, and the game went on. My thought at the time was that it was nice that the hit that broke it up was a clean hit and not something we’d look back on for years and wonder if it should have been an error. I then realized that over Hochevar’s previous 11 innings he had allowed zero hits.

You might remember in Hochevar’s start against the Mariners on Friday that he gave up a leadoff single to Ichiro and didn’t give up another hit. If you want to skew the numbers a little bit, since he hadn’t yet recorded an out, he really recorded 36 outs without giving up a hit. After Brantley’s single, a graphic displayed on the scoreboard that Hochevar had just completed a stretch where he retired 31 straight batters, which fell just two short of Steve Busby’s club record. Think about that for a second. 31 straight batters is a full complete game plus an inning and a third into his next start. There’s very little more dominant than that, and that is why, if the Royals give up on him, Hochevar will get chances for a long, long time. His ability to dominate and his draft status will keep him in the majors for quite some time.

Of course, as we’ve seen so often with Hochevar, he unraveled at that point. At first he balked and that got Brantley over to second. It was a strange balk because at least 2/3 of the crowd thought the umpire was saying that Ka’aihue had talked Brantley on the knee and was calling him out. Reality set in among the crowd when Brantley began trotting to second and we realized that the umpire was just indicating that Hochevar’s knee had buckled and he had committed a balk. So the forceout was dead, but nothing had come of anything yet. Then Hochevar hung a pitch to Matt LaPorta who doubled down the left field line scoring Brantley. Then Hochevar got two groundouts and LaPorta was on third but now with two outs. Hochevar was pitching in the windup with LaPorta on third. I even mentioned to my friend who I was with at the game that I hate how he pitches from the windup with a runner on third. Not three seconds later, he started his windup and then stopped for some reason. It was his second balk of the inning, and LaPorta scored.

After that, a high chopper to the mound off the bat of Asdrubal Cabrera went off the glove of Hochevar and allowed Cabrera to reach safely. You could argue that the wheels really came off when Hochevar balked for the second time in the inning, but even then he hadn’t been hit hard. With Cabrera on first, Shin-Soo Choo hit a ringing double to the gap that scored Cabrera. On the throw home, Choo went to third and Travis Hafner hit a little squib double down the left field line that put the Indians up by two. Orlando Cabrera ended the inning by striking out, but the damage was done. What was once a perfect game was now a 4-2 deficit heading into the bottom of the sixth inning. To make matters worse, Justin Masterson who was hit hard in the first had figured things out and was on cruise control. Luckily the Royals had forced him to throw 32 pitches in the first, so he wasn’t going to be able to go much longer, but while he was in there he was pretty dominant.

Hochevar came out for the seventh and continued to get hit hard before being replaced by Tim Collins who allowed both inherited runners to score before shutting the door. The Indians would add one more in the top of the ninth before the Royals scored three in the bottom of the ninth to make it more of a game, but this one was lost when Hochevar imploded in the sixth. It’s something that Yost has talked about before with Luke about how he needs to keep focus and work his way out of jams. If you’ll remember, in Hochevar’s first start with Yost as manager, he got in some trouble. I don’t know if this is revisionist memory, but I feel like Hochevar looked to the dugout in that start and Yost didn’t move. Hochevar gave up something like four or five runs, and the Royals ended up losing, but the purpose of that game was for Yost to show Hochevar that he’s going to have to work out of his own jams.

For about a month after that, Hochevar was very good. Then he got hurt and missed most of the rest of the season. I don’t even count what he did when he came back because he was on a limited pitch count, it was September and the Royals were way out of things. Up until the sixth inning yesterday, Hochevar had not been too bad this year. His first start and the first inning of his second start weren’t exactly top notch, but after the first inning of his start against the White Sox, he had been very good. It seems cliché to say, but the difference between Hochevar being a fourth or fifth starter and him being a first or second starter is his ability to keep focus and not implode. If the Royals can find a way to coax the good Hochevar to be there 85% of the time, then they have figured out one of their rotation spots for the next five seasons. If, however, he continues his pattern of implosion at any sign of trouble then the Royals need to be on the lookout for someone better.

At this point, it doesn’t matter if Hochevar was drafted first overall or 1,000th overall. By the time you get to the Major Leagues, it’s a game of results, and if you don’t produce, you’ve got to go. At this point, I’m convinced that the Royals are going to be good, and they’re going to be good soon. I don’t think it’s this year. They’re going to come back to earth at some point, and be about where I expected them to be, but the clock is ticking on guys like Hochevar who have struggled to carve out a niche on this team. I read something the other day about what would happen if the Royals made the playoffs this season and who you’d want starting game one. Almost unanimously, the choice was Mike Montgomery. What does that say about the current staff? Nothing good, that’s for sure. The key to the current staff is Luke Hochevar. I’m not saying he has to be perfect every time out, but last night’s meltdown can’t happen again or else he’ll soon be a part of the past and not the future.

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