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Hochevar provides reliable, versatile option for KC

Veteran right-hander vies to rejoin rotation after productive 2013 in Royals' bullpen

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SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Luke Hochevar excelling as a relief pitcher -- who knew?

Yet that's what happened last season after the Royals, in a Spring Training decision, decided to try Hochevar in the bullpen. This came after he'd been an integral part of the starting rotation for five years.

Hochevar relieved 58 times, punched out 82 batters in 70 1/3 innings, posted a 5-2 record with two saves and put up a 1.92 ERA. And he had a good time doing it.

"You ride that adrenaline and yeah, it's a lot of fun," Hochevar said. "You get that adrenaline that you typically don't get when you start. You're kind of getting close to finishing the game or something like that, but you ride that adrenaline and it's completely different. It's fun, I enjoyed it."

Yet Hochevar's history was as a starter. In his previous 132 games for Kansas City, 128 were starts, although his record of 38-59 with a 5.73 ERA gave manager Ned Yost pause as he considered his rotation last spring. After all, Hochevar had been just 8-16 in 2012.

Hochevar took the news about the move without complaint and took a seat in the bullpen, doing so well that by season's end he was a setup man for closer Greg Holland.

As Yost pointed out, Hochevar, Bruce Chen and Wade Davis all readily accepted a change from starting to relieving at some point last year.

"They just want to do whatever they can to help the team win. All those guys are consummate team guys -- it's team first," Yost said. "No crying, no complaining, but none of those guys are selfish guys. It's not them first, it's team first."

Even so, Hochevar wants another shot at starting, and he's among the cluster of candidates (including Davis) for the fifth spot behind James Shields, Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie and Chen. Hochevar is scheduled to follow Guthrie to the mound on Monday against the White Sox.

"It's just the same as any camp, I've got to go out and make good pitches and really kind of roll over some things that I learned out of the bullpen last year, which is more so my approach," he said. "Just roll that into seven or eight innings as opposed to one or two."

Pitching out of the 'pen opened a new path to Hochevar's approach.

"I think what I was able to see for the first time ever in my career was that out of the bullpen, you've just got to get three outs. You're not saving a pitch, you're not trying to set somebody up for their next at-bat. You're throwing a pitch at that exact moment to get them out right then," Hochevar said.

"There's really no pacing yourself, you're not out there saying, 'Oh, I need to throw this many innings.' You're out there and you're just going as hard as you can for that inning because you're just out there for an inning. [It's] that mental approach of just going as hard as I can for as long as I can and not worrying about pacing myself or setting a guy up for his next at-bat. Just throwing the pitch I've got to throw for that exact moment to get him out."

So it was more of a thought process?

"Or less of one," he said wryly.

Given Hochevar's overwhelming success as a reliever last year, could that work against his desire to return to starting? Might the Royals just merely opt to keep him in the bullpen?

"No. It's a fallback, though," Yost said. "We definitely know if he doesn't start for us, he can be a force in the 'pen. So it's a good-good thing. If he starts, that's good. If he doesn't, that's good too."

Hochevar knows it's not his decision to make.

"You never know where it ends up. I just think it's a matter of trying to improve yourself every time, every game, every year," he said. "Then the decision-makers make the decisions for you. You never know where it can end up."

Who knows, with his stuff, he might even be a closer someday.

"He very well could fill that role," Yost said.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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