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Hochevar on hunt for consistency

Hochevar on hunt for consistency

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KANSAS CITY -- Luke Hochevar was having his final Spring Training tuneup at Texas on Friday when he was drilled in the left ankle by David Murphy's shot. The ball caromed off Hochevar and rolled right to first baseman Billy Butler, who got the out.

"That's the play the Royals have been working on all spring -- the pitcher kicks the ball to the first baseman -- and it worked perfectly," broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre said, or words to that effect.

Good for a laugh.

"Absolutely," Hochevar said with a grin. "When you get smoked, the best possible thing that can happen is you get an out."

And Hochevar could chuckle because he emerged unscathed from the fourth-inning scare and will start against the Detroit Tigers as scheduled on Wednesday night at Kauffman Stadium.

"I was only 10 pitches away from my pitch count, so they said, 'Get it iced. Just take some precaution,'" he said. "But I've had no pain, no swelling. So it's been great."

It's gone largely unnoticed, but this is the first time that Hochevar has opened the season with the Royals. That seems odd because he's been a big part of the pitching rotation for the past two years. Yet in 2008, Hochevar opened in Triple-A and made three starts before being called up. Same thing in '09, when he started six times for Omaha (5-0, 0.90 ERA) before being summoned.

Hochevar, though, certainly is no afterthought. Not when the Royals made him the nation's No. 1 Draft selection in 2006. It's just that his combined big league record of 13-26 and 5.88 ERA is not what they had in mind.

At 26, though, he could be poised for a breakout. Toward that end, he worked in Spring Training to polish a changeup.

"Last year, I didn't throw it very much. Now I have a lot of confidence in it. I threw it a lot in Spring Training and I really got a lot of good results out of it," Hochevar said. "I'm excited about that pitch. It gives me another option to kind of slow them down and get them off my fastball, and get back in counts with that pitch."

It's a well-known story about how Zack Greinke developed a killer changeup a year ago and it helped carry him to Cy Young heights.

"That's what we're shooting for," Hochevar said. "Zack set the tone for us last year and, watching him go through it and do what he did, it motivates you to do that. It motivates you to get to where he's at and accomplish the things that he's accomplished. I mean, that's your goal as a baseball player, to be the very best and the best you can possibly be. You have to have high expectations of yourself and go out and do it."

Manager Trey Hillman liked what he saw in Hochevar's changeup.

"Early on, he was telegraphing it a little bit, but he got his arm speed and his delivery in sync with it, and that's going to be a big pitch for him," Hillman said.

Hillman noted that pitching coach Bob McClure put a bit more of a turn in Hochevar's delivery, which gives him more power and more deceptiveness while still throwing strikes.

The common refrain for the 6-foot-5 right-hander from Tennessee is that he only needs to develop some consistency in his performances. He pitched three superb games last season -- an 80-pitch complete-game victory over Cincinnati, 13 strikeouts in seven innings of a win over Texas, and a three-hit shutout over Chicago's White Sox.

It's those kind of zingers that Hochevar seeks every time he takes the mound.

"You've got to go out and expect that," he said. "Not go out and expect to keep the team in the ballgame -- it's to go out and win the ballgame. That's the bottom line."

Yet each of those great triumphs was followed by a beating. After going 6-3 with a 4.84 in his first 12 starts last year, Hochevar went 1-10 with an 8.21 ERA in his last 13 starts. No consistency there.

And, as he's heard only too often, Hochevar must avoid the annoying dilemma of the big inning.

"If he can stay away from the big inning and stop the bleeding, so to speak, and put that straight number up there now and then instead of the crooked number, it'll be OK," Hillman said.

Hochevar will go for those round zeros and maybe a straight one against the Tigers, a team that in the past he has tamed (six shutout innings in a win) and also set free (a five-run inning in a loss). Overall, in four games against Detroit, he's 1-2 with a 6.87 ERA, and the Tigers have hit .325 against him.

"It's all right, it's a new year," Hochevar said. "We're going to do good against them this year, that's all that counts."

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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