Kuo is taking things in stride
Matt Kemp walked out of the clubhouse, bat in hand and helmet tucked under his armpit. The non-roster players sat quietly in front of their lockers along the back wall. A small circle of reporters stood in the middle of the room making dinner plans.
To nearly everyone, this particular morning felt like any other.
Except to Hong-Chih Kuo.
Simply being in the room to observe the slow morning unfold was fun, the Taiwanese left-hander said.
“I think I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world,” he said.
Lucky because he survived an elbow operation to become one of the premier setup men in baseball. And another elbow operation. And another. And another.
Then there was that thing he faced last season.
That thing Rick Ankiel used to call “The Creature.” That thing that others call the Steve Blass disease. Or the yips.
In plain English, the ability to throw a strike.
Of all the obstacles, the 28-year-old Kuo has faced, he said none were as tough to overcome as this one.
“At the time, I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “I lost my confidence.”
This was someone who had already done the impossible several times.
Soon after he signed with the Dodgers out of high school -- he said he chose them because Taiwanese outfielder Chin-Feng Chen was in their system -- Kuo seriously injured his elbow for the first time. A few innings into his professional debut with the Class-A affiliate in San Bernardino, he heard something pop.
The next day, he was told he would have to undergo surgery.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “I was young. I didn’t know it was a big deal.”
Or how it would affect the rest of his life.
He made it to the majors in 2005, but his health was always an issue. Multiple operations altered the anatomy of his elbow into something unrecognizable. He contemplated retirement.
By the time Joe Torre became the Dodgers’ manager, Kuo had almost had enough. He told the Dodgers not to baby him. If he got injured, he told them, he got hurt.
The 2008 season was the finest of Kuo’s career. He pitched a career-high 80 innings, posted a 2.14 earned-run average and struck out 96 batters. But near the end of the season, something went wrong.
Warming up for a game in San Francisco, Kuo said that his fingers went numb and that the skin on his arm turned bright red.
“He couldn’t feel the ball as well,” Dodgers trainer Stan Conte said. “You use the word ‘feel’ in two different contexts. One is the sensation of the ball in your hand. Then there’s what a pitcher will talk about: ‘I just don’t have the feel.’ Although they have a feel with the ball, they don’t have a great idea of what they can do with it. I think with him, it was both.”
The next spring, Kuo had trouble commanding his pitches.
The problem started out as something minor, Kuo missing several inches high or wide of his intended target.
But in a game at Dodger Stadium in May, Kuo was warming up in the bullpen and sailed a couple of balls into the infield.
Kuo said he didn’t know what was wrong, but theorized that his loss of control resulted from a combination of physical and psychological factors. He was put on the disabled list.
Whatever the reasons, chances of a return appeared slim.
Catcher Brad Ausmus had seen this happen to pitchers.
“I wasn’t sure if we would ever see him pitch again,” Ausmus said.
Unable to count on Kuo’s return, General Manager Ned Colletti started to look around for a left-handed reliever, a process that resulted in the Dodgers acquiring George Sherrill in July.
Only Torre said he was hopeful Kuo would be back.
“You want to think the way you hope,” Torre said.
Kuo took advice from his teammates and coaches. He talked to two sports psychologists. He was sent to the Dodgers’ spring-training facility, where he once misfired a pitch and drilled a trainer in the neck during a bullpen session. The trainer was at least 30 yards away, walking across an adjacent practice field.
When Kuo didn’t get better, he took a new approach.
“I tried to enjoy it again,” he said. “Don’t try to go out and be perfect. If you love the game, you can play.”
And somehow, Kuo regained his command.
Asked how that happened, Kuo shrugged.
“I don’t know, man,” he said.
He was activated from the 60-day disabled list in late July and pitched three times in his first four days back on the active roster, throwing 22/3 scoreless innings against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“Everyone had a story,” Conte said. “Everyone had a way to fix it. Somehow, he was able to filter it out to get what he needed.”
Then came the real test.
On Aug. 7, Chad Billingsley slapped a single but strained his hamstring on his way to second base. Torre called Kuo out of the bullpen.
As Kuo ran onto the field, Torre suddenly realized Kuo might not be ready and would have to warm up in front of more than 50,000 spectators.
“I knew I made a mistake,” Torre said.
The Dodgers’ medical staff was horrified. They knew better than anyone what Kuo had to do to be on the field. Even before he lost his control, he used to show up at the training room at 1 p.m. on game days to receive treatment, sometimes beating the trainers to the ballpark. They affectionately called him “the Cockroach” because of the number of times he returned from career-threatening injuries. Conte recalled how pitcher Randy Wolf used to jokingly complain that they only cared about Kuo, pointing to how they stood on the top step of the dugout whenever he pitched.
They were on the top step railing again on this night, this time more fearful than usual.
What if he sailed a ball into the stands and humiliated himself? Kuo had no such thoughts.
“Just go out there,” Kuo recalled telling himself.
He gave up two runs in one-third of an inning, but the thinking in the dugout was that disaster was averted. Over his final 21 games of the season, Kuo posted a 1.93 ERA in 182/3 innings.
Through it all, Kuo maintained his sense of humor.
Conte recalled how when Kuo, after being told he would be throwing a bullpen session that day, would jokingly cross himself.
“I hope I don’t hit anyone,” Conte said Kuo would tell him.
The Dodgers rewarded him last winter with a one-year, $950,000 contract.
Kuo said he does not worry that the issue could resurface.
Conte has stopped trying to make sense of what happened.
“I don’t know why his elbow works,” Conte said. “I don’t know why his head works. It does. I think he’s done something special at a very, very high level.”