Kuo returns to site of stunning debut
Rookie left-hander's first start was a gem at Shea Stadium
NEW YORK -- He has always been one rung below and one step behind. But Hong-Chih Kuo's shot at emerging from the giant Taiwanese shadow cast by Chien-Ming Wang comes Thursday night.Forty-eight hours after Wang gave the Yankees a dominant start to their American League Division Series against Detroit, Kuo will take the mound eight miles southeast of the Bronx. He will be pitching against New York, for the Dodgers in Game 2 of the National League Division Series. But the 25-year-old left-hander -- arguably the most anonymous pitcher in this entire postseason -- will be pitching to win over the same corner of the world. He's from the same country as Wang. The same city, Tainan. The same neighborhood. Even the same high school. Yes, Kuo and Wang -- only the second and third pitchers of their ancestry to make Major League starts -- were high school teammates, though hardly high school peers. Asked Wednesday who had been the No. 1 starter on their prep team, Kuo said sheepishly, "Probably him." Wang, in fact, was prominent enough to reduce Kuo to only a part-time pitcher, and an outfielder primarily. They were teammates on Taiwan's entry in the 2002 Asian Games, in which Wang earned team MVP honors. Nonetheless, pro baseball discovered Kuo first. He signed with the Dodgers for a $1.2 million bonus in July 1999 -- nearly a year before the Yankees signed Wang. Since then, Wang has escalated into prominence -- while Kuo spiraled into anonymity. Elbow injuries turned him into a ghost in the Dodgers organization. In six Minor League seasons through 2005, he appeared in a total of 46 games and pitched a total of 97 innings. Numerous pitchers undergo Tommy John elbow surgeries, but not many of them get a post-op pep talk from the left-handed inspiration of the procedure himself. Kuo did so in 2003. Maybe it was his prize on a frequent-patient program, since Kuo had undergone an earlier Tommy John operation in 2000. "After the second operation, I talked to Tommy a lot," Kuo said. "He gave me confidence. He would tell me, 'It's been 30 years since I had the surgery. I'm still healthy, still pitching [batting practice], so don't give up.'" Kuo didn't, and is finally beginning to make the impact the Dodgers enthusiastically foresaw when their scouts Acey Kohrogi and Jack Zduriednick signed a 17-year-old kid who could bring it at 97 mph.
Wang has 27 wins -- 19 this season, tying him for best in the AL. Kuo has just one -- but that one came a month ago right here, against the Mets, in dominant fashion.In that Sept. 8 start, his first in the Majors following 32 relief appearances, Kuo pitched three-hit shutout ball for six innings. When Dodgers manager Grady Little was asked what he liked about Kuo that night, part of what made him choose him for such a critical assignment, Little said, "He showed us the same thing he showed the whole world." "He's not scared of anyone," Little elaborated. "He's got good stuff, he challenges hitters, he works fast. That's all we're looking for again [Thursday]." Said Mets right fielder Shawn Green, who struck out and singled against Kuo that night, "He's got a good fastball and breaking ball. He'll be tough again, so I can see the reason why [the Dodgers decided to start Kuo]. But the [Mets] will be getting a second look at him." A select few Mets will be getting their third and fourth looks. The sightings haven't yet helped. Including two relief appearances in June, Kuo has logged nine shutout innings against the Mets, allowing four hits and three walks while striking out 12.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.