KANSAS CITY -- Increasingly, Luke Hochevar is catching onto this relief gig.
The big right-hander, a starter throughout his career, was moved to the bullpen with the influx of new starting pitchers, and he appeared in his ninth game on Thursday night at Baltimore. With the Royals ahead, 6-2, he reeled through a perfect ninth to finish the game. It wasn't a save situation, but it gave him a taste of a late-inning finish with the game fairly close.
"When you're playing a team like Baltimore or you're playing teams at the top of the division and you have the lead, you want to go with your best pitchers," manager Ned Yost said. "And to be able to put him in that spot, it's just a little progression. Yeah, he had a bit of a safety net because if he puts two guys on, here comes Holly [closer Greg Holland], but still, he's making great strides. It's not that he can't do it, it's just getting him accustomed to the situations."
Last Sunday against Chicago, Hochevar pitched two perfect innings, the eighth and ninth. The Royals tied the score, 5-5, in the ninth and won in the 10th, with Holland getting the victory.
"It's a little different. You're usually coming in in a situation -- with runners on, or in a tight game," Hochevar said.
Now that he's not starting, Hochevar finds himself able to unload his entire arsenal right away instead of perhaps holding something back for the next time or two that he'll face a batter. In relief, there aren't many second or third times around.
"I feel more that I'm coming out with everything rather than saving a pitch, holding a pitch or using a pitch to set somebody up," Hochevar said. "You still have to make quality pitches."
So far, so good. For the 12 1/3 innings that Hochevar had pitched prior to the Yankees series, his ERA was 0.73 with 13 strikeouts.
Yost really wants to see how Hochevar progresses in relief, so if he ever needs to reach into the bullpen for a starter, he's more likely to tap left-hander Bruce Chen instead of Hochevar.
"I'm not going to take him out of the bullpen just to start him again, no," Yost said. "But if there's a need, yeah, we'd consider it. But we'd have to get there. That's a tough question to answer."
Herrera finding his way after serving up some homers
KANSAS CITY -- Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera feels that he's back on track after taking some lumps, mostly in the form of home runs -- six in his first 15 games. Heck, all last year he gave up just four homers in 76 games.
So Herrera was a bit puzzled.
"It's a young pitcher all pumped up and saying, 'How did they do that?'" manager Ned Yost said. "Well, they do it because you're not locating the ball."
Herrera fully realizes that now.
"That's the difference between bombs and ground balls -- location," Herrera said. "I know I was throwing the ball up instead of hitting my spot."
In his first six games, Herrera didn't allow a run and had 11 strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings.
"I started out the season striking out almost everybody and then I just had a couple of outings that were bad," he said.
In his seventh game on April 16 at Atlanta, he gave up three home runs. He bounced back with a scoreless inning the next day, but then on April 20 at Boston, he surrendered a game-deciding three-run blast.
Things have improved markedly since, with the exception of a loss to Chicago last Monday on a home run, and Herrera insists that he's headed in the right direction. He looked sharp in a scoreless inning on Thursday at Baltimore.
"I feel like new," he said. "I just feel like I'm going to strike out those guys. I have a feeling of confidence."
Catchers Perez, Kottaras celebrate shared birthday
KANSAS CITY -- What are the chances?
Two catchers on the same team, one born in Venezuela and the other born in Canada, celebrating their birthdays on the same day in the United States. To be specific, in Kansas City.
Yet that was the case on Friday as the Royals' regular catcher, Salvador Perez, and his backup, George Kottaras, marked their birthdays. Perez, born in Valencia, Venezuela, turned 23, and Kottaras, born in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada, was 30.
"It's unbelievable," Perez said. "Wow!"
What are the chances?
"It's a below percent chance that that happens," Kottaras said.
Mo, Yanks make light of last year's injury in KC
KANSAS CITY -- Mariano Rivera jogged out to the spot where his career nearly ended 12 months ago, looked down and smiled.
A prankster from the Yankees' clubhouse had painted a white chalk outline of Rivera's body on the warning track, while a banner adorned with stop signs and yellow caution tape fluttered from the outfield wall reading: "No Mo Zone."
Rivera posed in front of the wall for a photo, grabbing his right knee in mock pain. He said that he expected to hear some good-natured ribbing from his teammates as he returned to Kauffman Stadium, the Yanks' first trip back since Rivera tore his right ACL before a May 3, 2012, game against the Royals.
"The only thing that will come back to me is just knowing that I got hurt there," Rivera said. "But I mean, I will enjoy it definitely because that moment and seeing where I am right now, that's what is gratifying. I'm thanking the Lord for me being here."
Yankees bullpen coach Mike Harkey, who was one of the first on the scene when Rivera crumpled in pursuit of a Jayson Nix fly ball on that afternoon last May, is believed to have been one of the leading pranksters to dress up the left-center-field area on Friday.
The adornments were removed by the time the Yankees' batting practice session concluded, and manager Joe Girardi said that he didn't expect his thoughts would drift to Rivera's injury much during the course of Friday's game.
"Not really," Girardi said. "You see guys get injured all the time in different ballparks, and I know Mo is not just your everyday guy, I understand that. I'm sure the guys will have a little fun with it today and then try to put it behind us."