10/18/09 8:45 PM EST
Pitching in playoffs no small feat for Kuo
Four elbow surgeries among obstacles for Dodgers lefty
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
He's survived four elbow operations and, this year, a mysterious case of the yips. He's survived four Dodgers managers, five general managers, two owners. Signed out of Taiwan at age 17 a decade ago, the left-handed reliever has been in the organization longer than anyone else on the postseason roster.
"I'm lucky," the 28-year-old said. "I'm lucky I can still pitch. There are people who don't have any chance to do this. A lot of guys get hurt in the Minor Leagues and never get here. I still get the opportunity, so it could be worse. So, yes, I am lucky. Lucky to still be pitching."
And pitching pretty well. In three postseason games, Kuo hasn't allowed a run in 2 2/3 innings with four strikeouts and no walks. He was the winning pitcher in Game 2 against the Phillies, inducing a double-play grounder from the only batter he faced.
But earlier this season, nobody was sure if he would pitch again, and not for the first time. As if an elbow with two Tommy John ligament replacement operations isn't enough, Kuo suddenly couldn't hit the broad side of a bullpen gate.
Warming up for an eighth-inning entry May 1, Kuo couldn't throw a catchable pitch to Brad Ausmus. Some bounced short, others sailed wide. Two cleared the gate entirely and bounced into the infield, stopping the game. After 15 throws, Kuo was shut down and the next day disabled.
"The architecture of the joint is never the same after that much surgery," explained trainer Stan Conte. "It's like a tire out of alignment. Once the wear is uneven, nothing moves the same way. I don't want to be overly dramatic, but since last year, it's not unfair to say he's one throw away. Any pitcher can say that because of the nature of the position. In his case, it's literally true and he's known it all this time and there's a huge mental stress, but he handles it."
Kuo's daily therapy ritual -- exercises, hot/cold applications, ultrasound, stretching, etc. -- is off the charts, according to Conte.
"It makes him the most persistent player I've ever seen," said Conte, with three decades as a sports trainer. "Any of his surgeries could have ended someone else's career."
After struggling to a 6.75 ERA before being disabled, Kuo returned from a three-month rehab with a 2.19 ERA in his final 28 appearances. A year ago, he wasn't healthy enough to make the roster for the first round of the playoffs, but was activated to face the Phillies for the second round.
"The demons he's had to fight off -- I don't know how he's done it," said Randy Wolf. "It's amazing, because the scariest things are the ones we create in our head and with him it snowballed into that. You see guys with the yips that never recover from it. For some reason, that's a problem that can stick with you. For Kuo, he battled back and conquered it. We are all so happy for him. Hong-Chih doesn't have quit in him."
Kuo doesn't go unappreciated.
"I don't think there's a time you won't see the training staff on the dugout rail when Kuo is pitching," said Conte. "It's not out of concern. It's out of respect. We know what he's been through and what he has to do every day to keep pitching. Anybody who doesn't respect what this man has gone through simply doesn't know."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.