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03/29/11 5:00 PM ET

Hochevar excited for Opening Day start

KANSAS CITY -- Luke Hochevar remembers warming up in the bullpen for his Major League debut. It was Sept. 8, 2007, at Kauffman Stadium and the Royals were getting whacked by the New York Yankees, 11-2, in the sixth inning.

It was the Yankees and there were more than 35,000 people in the stands on a warm late-summer night in Kansas City. With Hochevar was bullpen coach Fred Kendall, father of current Royals catcher Jason Kendall.

"I remember Jason's dad told me when I was warming up, 'When you go out there, kid, don't look around. Just run straight to the mound,'" Hochevar recalled. "So the first thing I did was look up and I was like, 'Oh, that's a bad idea.'"

Not that Hochevar was all that shaken. Royals manager Buddy Bell decided a late-inning mop-up role was the perfect opportunity to bring the nation's No. 1 Draft choice of 2006 into the big show. Hochevar pitched three scoreless innings, giving up three hits and a walk.

"You never really forget your first time stepping on a big league mound. There was a big crowd, a packed house, against the Yankees," Hochevar said. "I remember I hit A-Rod and had a punchout. But I just remember that day, stepping out on the mound, I don't remember it pitch-by-pitch."

He did plunk Alex Rodriguez and the first hitter he faced, Robinson Cano, got an infield single. He also faced two of his current teammates, Wilson Betemit and Melky Cabrera (who slammed a double) and ex-Royals star Johnny Damon.

Another big day at Kauffman Stadium awaits Hochevar when, at 3:10 p.m. CT on Thursday, he steps on the mound to face the Los Angeles Angels in his first Opening Day start.

"Opening Day will be very memorable," he said.

Hochevar last year watched Zack Greinke, who made his first Opening Day start, go through the hubbub that always accompanies this ceremonial sellout event.

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"Last year, [it helped] being able to watch Zack go through the things he went through, getting ready for the game, all the craziness that goes on before," he said. "There's going to definitely be some extra emotion, I'm sure, but then again, I feel like I've pitched long enough to recognize it and make sure that I get back to focusing on what I should be and that's executing and getting hitters out."

This season is perfectly positioned for Hochevar to have his breakout year. He's 27, the age when many pitchers find their way in the Major League forest, and he's shown many glimpses of his vast potential. But he's had setbacks, too.

On June 11 last year, Hochevar lasted just four innings at Cincinnati and later went on the disabled list with a right elbow sprain. He didn't pitch for the Royals again until Sept. 13.

Prior to his injury, manager Ned Yost believed that Hochevar was really finding his way.

"I thought he made great strides," Yost said. "When I got here, everything I heard was he had great stuff but had a propensity for allowing big innings. When he got in trouble, it would always kind of escalate on him. And I thought he was really starting to find a way to make pitches in those situations that would keep those big innings into a lot smaller innings. And a lot of times, you could see stuff starting to develop and he'd snuff it right out. He was really doing that well and starting to take off when he hurt his elbow."

Hochevar made four rather undistinguished starts in September to finish 6-6 with a 4.81 ERA. Over the season for the Royals, he made just 17 starts with one relief appearance.

"I really didn't care how he finished, I just wanted him to finish healthy," Yost said.

When healthy, Hochevar has pitched some memorable games:

• An 80-pitch complete game to beat Cincinnati on June 12, 2009. He threw 57 strikes in a three-hitter.

• Thirteen strikeouts in just seven innings on July 25, 2009, against Texas. He didn't walk anybody either.

• An 11-0 win over Chicago on Sept. 18, 2009, in which he faced just two batters over the minimum.

Those are the gems that tease the Royals and give them the sense and the hope that Hochevar can deliver, at the least, good solid games almost every time he goes out there.

Now, with Opening Day, he continues that quest.

Hochevar has pitched openers in the Minor Leagues but nothing will compare with this.

During his three-plus years in the Majors, he's learned to block out the distracting elements of a huge crowd.

"Sure," he said. "Obviously, the first couple of times you're taking the mound in your first time in the big leagues, it's tough because you've never experienced it. But the more times you take the ball, the more times you go out there, the more comfortable you get. Big crowd, small crowd -- you've got to do the same thing."

It'll help, of course, that the vast majority of the 40,000 or so fans will be rooting for him.

Even before Yost picked him for the honor, Hochevar had mulled over the possibility.

"You think about it, no doubt," Hochevar said. "Not too much, but it has crossed my mind quite a few times. I'm really excited about it and really want to go out there and make it my proving ground."

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.