KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Luke Hochevar trotted in from the bullpen for the sixth inning Thursday, he arrived with little fanfare. When he departed, though, Kauffman Stadium rose to its feet.
During the Royals’ 7-4 win over Cleveland, Hochevar pitched for the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery last March. He had patiently waited 585 days between major league appearances, so the brisk jog in from the left-field bullpen probably felt like an instant.
Hochevar calmly sat down the Indians in order in his frame, striking out the first two hitters he faced before inducing a groundout. When Hochevar, a lifelong Royal, stepped toward the first-base dugout, the fans rewarded him with a standing ovation.
And then Royals manager Ned Yost came to greet the right-hander.
"When he came in, I went over and just shook his hand and said, ‘Hoch, there’s a lot of hours of hard work for that one inning right there,’" Yost said. "He said, ‘Boy, you’re sure right.’ I was really happy to see him back on the mound."
Hochevar had spent the last month in Triple A’s Pacific Coast League with Omaha, pitching in front of sparse crowds in tiny stadiums. Before that, he had appeared in spring training in Arizona, with undersized parks and lighter competition. Thursday was different.
"It was a long time coming," Hochevar said. "I kind of hit on it in spring, the first time I was able to take the mound competitively, but it doesn’t even hold a candle to this. It feels awesome. It feels great to be back and really be a contributor and not just a bona fide fan in the dugout."
Hochevar was a dominant reliever in 2013, appearing in 58 games with a 1.92 ERA and 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings. But he sat on the sideline during Kansas City’s run through the postseason last year, relegated to the bench instead of the mound.
So when he struck out Michael Bourn to lead off the sixth inning, Hochevar released a yell or sorts as he circled the mound. Hochevar couldn’t recall the moment, saying he probably "blacked out" but that there was a good reason for it.
"A year-and-a-half of built-up competitiveness just coming out," he said.
Yost and the Royals didn’t ease Hochevar back into action, either. He entered with a fragile two-run lead but said he didn’t feel "overamped or too jacked up."
Yost, however, admitted to some nervousness at first, but settled down once he saw Hochevar throw a few pitches.
"To watch him come out and throw his first couple of pitches, he relaxed me with the way he was throwing the ball," Yost said. "He was throwing the ball really, really well."