By Brian Rice
When Luke Hochevar became the first No. 1 overall draft pick in the history of the Kansas City Royals, it was easy to imagine that one day he would stand on the mound as his team clinched a World Series.
The way he got from draft day to champion was far from easy, a journey that made the payoff of pitching the final 2.0 innings of Game 5 of the World Series even more special.
Hochevar made his Major League debut in 2007, just a year after his selection in the 2006 draft. He would be one of the cornerstones for general manager Dayton Moore’s long-term rebuilding of the franchise.
“To hear the plan that Dayton came in and set for the organization,” Hochevar said of his early days in Kansas City. “He was going to change the entire organization into a winning atmosphere and then [we] slowly watched those pieces come into place.”
He made four appearances in that first season, one start, before establishing himself in the starting rotation a season later. Over the next five seasons from 2008-12, he made 127 starts, but never finished with a winning record, .500 seasons in 2010 and 2011 his high water marks. His lowest ERA in those seasons was a 4.68 in 2011.
When Hochevar moved to the bullpen in 2013, it may have not been the plan foreseen when Moore selected him in 2006, but it proved to be the winning move for a team that was quickly improving. A 1.92 ERA in 58 appearances, all out of the pen resulted in a 5-2 record for a Royals team that finished third in the American League Central, but with an 86-76 record that had them in playoff contention late in the season.
“That core group of guys that came up through the minor leagues had finally all come together,” Hochevar said. “It was right in front of us.
The expectation was that the 2014 Royals would take off, and they did. But they did it without Hochevar. An arm injury in a spring training game against the White Sox resulted in Tommy John surgery. 2014 was lost, rehab became his new game plan to make sure there would be a 2015 for his career.
“There’s always concern,” Hochevar said of his recovery. “But as a competitor, you don’t really dwell on those. You just look at what you need to do to continue to get to the next level and you focus on those things and you push forward.”
The Royals made the World Series in 2014, a magical run that began with a win in the Wild Card game and finished one game short of a championship with Game 7 loss to the San Francisco Giants.
The offseason question would be if a team one game shy of a championship would invest in a new contract for a reliever coming off Tommy John surgery. Moore still believed in his No. 1 pick and signed Hochevar to a new two-year deal.
He began the season in Triple-A Omaha, where a 7.84 ERA raised questions. He fought his control, his velocity and a period with a “dead arm,” a process that Hochevar admits was harder than he expected. But he worked his way back to the big leagues for a May 7 debut against the Cleveland Indians. Slowly, the old Hochevar started coming back to the surface, improving shortly before the All-Star break and taking off as the season neared a close.
“My feel started coming back a little more,” he said. “My arm strength came back, my command was getting better. But it wasn’t until about halfway through September that I started feeling like I did before surgery. It happened at the right time.”
It was all in the right time for the Royals down the stretch. Hochevar won just one game as a reliever in the 2015 regular season in 49 appearances, but won two in the postseason, including the biggest of them all. He pitched the final six outs as the Royals won Game 5 and the World Series for the first time since 1985.
It was a big final step in the long journey from his first day as a profession to his finest.
“You never want anything to not go your way,” he said. “But when things do come together and you end up having the opportunity to win a championship like we did this year, you look back on them and are thankful for them and hiving the opportunity to go through them to grow from them and learn from them.”
It meant something to him personally, but also to be able to give that gift to the people of Kansas City, who had supported the team through the lean years and celebrated every step forward. The championship parade was estimated to have more celebrants than there were residents in the city.
“At times, it’s just a game, but when you win a championship like we did and come back to Kansas City and see the people and the excitement, you realize it’s more than just a game,” Hochevar said. “It is something that brings a community together and gives people something in common to cheer about. It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s an experience I will never forget.”