OMAHA, Neb. -- Luke Hochevar's season was epitomized Sunday afternoon at Rosenblatt Stadium against Triple-A Tucson. He coaxed outs from the first two hitters he faced but eventually allowed four first-inning runs. However, Hochevar cruised the rest of the game and permitted just one run in his final five innings.
The outing replicated many of Hochevar's starts: inconsistent command mixed with great stuff and glimpses of brilliance.
Overall, this season has been a developmental period, a period that Hochevar knows is vital for his future. In 22 games (21 starts), Hochevar has posted a 5.24 ERA at two Minor League levels, including a 7.18 mark in five starts at Triple-A Omaha.
"I am not glad that I struggled, but it opened my eyes to things," Hochevar said in the O-Royals' dugout on Friday afternoon. "It's not that you want to struggle, but that you have to welcome [it] and the fact that I have learned a ton this season. My numbers aren't eye-popping or anything, but I wouldn't trade that for the lessons that I have learned."
Hochevar, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, is a key piece in the Royals' reconstruction. While several pitchers from Hochevar's draft class -- namely the Giants' Tim Lincecum and Detroit's Andrew Miller -- are fixtures on Major League pitching staffs, Hochevar isn't quite ready for the big leagues.
That isn't a concern for Royals management.
"There is no set timetable," J.J. Picollo, Royals director of player development, said. "It doesn't matter if Luke was the first overall pick, the tenth pick or a fifth rounder. We aren't going to rush him. The Kansas City Royals aren't built to compete in August and September of 2007. We are trying to build for success in the next 15-20 years."
Hochevar has undergone several changes this season. He has revamped his delivery from the stretch, slightly tweaked his eye line when he pitches and developed his arsenal.
Despite the growing pains, Hochevar has enjoyed several successes. He threw a scoreless inning at the Futures Game and started the Texas League All-Star Game. Hochevar struck out 94 batters in 94 innings at Double-A Wichita and has fashioned a solid 6.49 strikeouts per nine innings rate for the O-Royals.
His stuff is considered Major League-worthy.
"He has great stuff," a scout said. "I have seen him since his junior year at Tennessee and his stuff hasn't changed. His stuff is a worthy reflection of a No. 1 overall pick in the Draft."
Hochevar's command, especially his fastball, still needs some work.
"We want him to be able to command his fastball better so he can throw it whenever and wherever he wants to," Picollo said. "When you command your fastball, it makes everything else better. We just want him to progress and iron out some things. He is still ahead of 99 percent of pitchers."
Hochevar, the first No. 1 overall pick in Royals history, is one of the best college hurlers ever. He was a first team All-American in college, won the Roger Clemens Award and pitched in the College World Series. He nearly signed with the Dodgers as a supplemental pick in the 2005 Draft, but re-entered after negotiations fell apart.
After signing with KC on Aug. 4, 2006, he entered this season as one of the Minors' top prospects and is one of the first players from his class to reach Triple-A.
But he has reinvented himself this year. At Tennessee and in his short stint with the Independent League Fort Worth Cats, Hochevar said he could "out-stuff" guys.
He was slow from the stretch, a weakness that runners exposed at Wichita. In his first nine appearances, runners stole 12 bases in 14 attempts off the right-hander.
Hochevar worked on a slide step in the bullpen. The new move brought some command issues and Hochevar's pitches often floated higher in the strike zone. He didn't feel comfortable with the change until late May.
"I would locate good and pitch good, but then a runner would get on, whether it was a [fast guy] or whatever, that is when I would get hurt and that's when I would give up my hits," he said. "Now I am just kind of loading and going. That is my little timing cue. It's very simple and I got it down to where I am comfortable with it."
O-Royals pitching coach Tom Burgmeier said Hochevar has now dropped from 1.5 seconds to 1.1 - 1.3 seconds in his delivery to the plate from the stretch.
Burgmeier has helped Hochevar become more comfortable, including stopping him from looking at runners leading off third base. Hochevar can also switch up his pauses -- a variance that allowed him to pick off a runner on Sunday afternoon.
"It's all part of the process," Burgmeier said. "Luke needs more experience. With experience comes proficiency. He has to pre-program himself. On one pitch, he may go slow, but on the next one, Luke may deliver immediately. After awhile, you don't even think about it."
Burgmeier slightly tweaked Hochevar's mechanics, too. Instead of looking away from the catcher's glove, the right-hander now focuses at the target the whole time in his delivery.
"It has helped me a lot with my location," Hochevar said.
It's location that has disappeared at times for Hochevar. A sinker/slider pitcher at the University of Tennessee, Hochevar rarely threw those pitches in the first half of the season. The organization wanted Hochevar to focus on commanding his four-seam fastball and curveball.
"That was another adjustment," he said. "My bread and butter is gone and I have to relearn how to attack hitters. That was tough. I am not going to sugarcoat it or anything. That was tough."
Now, Hochevar considers his curveball his "go-to" offspeed pitch and has more confidence in his four-seamer, a pitch he used infrequently before this season.
"There have been a lot of changes, but even with all the changes, I feel like things have gone good," he said.
That was exhibited on Sunday. In the first inning, Hochevar fell behind four out of five hitters in one stretch and allowed four two-out runs.
It's innings like the one on Sunday that keep Hochevar in the Minors.
"If you are behind hitters consistently, these guys are going to get you here," O-Royals' manager Mike Jirschele said.
But Hochevar was excellent in his final five innings. He worked ahead, commanded his Major League-quality stuff and showed continued signs that his year of learning is paying dividends. Only four runners reached base and Hochevar had three innings where he threw fewer than 10 pitches. He retired 11 of his last 13 hitters.
The start marked another step in Hochevar's development, development that he hopes brings him closer to the Majors.
"I can continue to keep grinding and continue to get better," he said.