Vols' Hochevar Hopes For A Healthy Season
Junior righthander hoping to put injuries behind him in draft year
If on a Friday the 13th, Luke Hochevar just stayed in bed all day, some neighborhood kid would probably hit a baseball through his window and off his noggin.
That’s the sort of rotten luck that kept Hochevar from blossoming into an All-America candidate during his 2004 sophomore season at Tennessee.
Hochevar, a 6-foot-5 righthander who is on Baseball America’s 2005 preseason All-America first team, held Morehead State hitless for seven innings in the Volunteers’ season opener on Feb. 13, 2004--Friday the 13th. But the outing was cut short when he took a line drive off his left shin, and the resulting bone bruise sidelined him for a month.
He was scheduled to make his return against Siena on March 14, but his awful fortune intervened a day early. Hochevar bent over to pick up a baseball behind the batting practice screen on March 13. In that instant, a foul ball struck the screen right where Hochevar’s temple was up against it, causing him to miss another month.
“Back-to-back freak injuries, it was like I had a magnet,” Hochevar said. “My next start was scheduled for April 13, and it got rained out--thankfully, because 13 is not a lucky day for me. April 14 was my next outing back.”
It took Hochevar a few games to settle into a groove, but he got stronger the more he pitched and finished 4-2, 2.86 with 60 strikeouts, 23 walks and a .227 opponent batting average in 63 innings.Summer Star
Hochevar carried his momentum over into the summer, where he and Cal State Fullerton lefthander Ricky Romero anchored Team USA’s pitching staff. Hochevar went 1-0, 2.73 with 38 strikeouts in a team-high 33 innings, culminating in a terrific performance against Japan in the gold-medal game of the World University Championship. After allowing two runs and three hits in the first inning, Hochevar gave up just two more hits in the next six innings, at one point retiring 18 batters in a row, to earn the win.
“Luke was one of our most consistent guys; he’d have a quality start every time out, even when he gave up a couple of runs early,” said Team USA pitching coach Mike Trapasso, the head coach at Hawaii. “His mental toughness, he’d just flush it. The gold-medal game was a great example. I marveled at his ability to do that all year.”
As good as Hochevar’s stuff is--and it is outstanding, with an exploding 90-94 mph fastball, an above-average hard-breaking slider, a solid curveball and a developing sinker--his makeup is what most impresses his coaches.
“I’ve never come across a guy like this as far as a student-athlete,” said first-year Tennessee pitching coach Mike Bell. “He wants to outwork everybody out there, in the weight room, film room, on the field, off the field--this guy takes preparation to another level. You hear stories about Curt Schilling, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, how these guys prepare themselves. Luke’s like the college equivalent.”
Hochevar’s dedication was evident at an early age. Even though he grew up in Fowler, Colo., where baseball season was limited to about 18 games because of the weather, Hochevar grew up around the game and always knew he wanted to play it. His father Brian coached baseball at Lamar (Colo.) Community College, and he would take Luke to his baseball camp every year. When the camp ended, Luke would cry because he didn’t want to leave.
In eighth grade, Hochevar took a woodshop class and built an indoor pitching mound for his first class project.
“I got the most wear and tear out of that mound,” he said. “I was on that thing constantly--that’s the only place I could go was that indoor mound in the gym. You’ve got to make a valiant effort in Colorado to throw indoors all the time.”
Hochevar said his work ethic is a result of his intense fear that someone out there might be working harder than he is. He wants desperately to be the best, a desire that is deep-rooted. Runs In The Family
His father played professional basketball with the Denver Nuggets in 1979. His mother Carmen played college basketball and volleyball at Southern Colorado. His sister Brittany was a two-time all-American volleyball player at Long Beach State at two different positions and is now playing professional beach volleyball in Puerto Rico. And Luke said his younger brother Dylan is “by far” the best athlete in the family, a high school quarterback who can throw the football through the wall and also plays basketball, though Luke’s trying to get him to play college baseball.
With all those athletes around, a little rivalry was bound to surface.
“The last dinner roll on the table was a fight,” Luke Hochevar said. “If someone did something around the house, everyone else in the family was trying to outdo them. Just a constant competitive atmosphere. It was awesome. I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.”
Of course, Hochevar might be able to have the world, too. As long as he gives a wide berth to black cats and broken mirrors, he should be able to avoid injury in 2005 and beyond. One of the few advantages of coming from Colorado is that Hochevar only threw about 40 innings a season in high school, keeping his arm fresh and healthy. And he has built his durability through his rigorous throwing program, so he is in position to dominate the Southeastern Conference this season and be one of the first college pitchers drafted this June.
“Expect a monster year from him,” Trapasso said. “I don’t know what other guy in the country will be better.”