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Finding His Niche

Rookie Kuo might start key game for Dodgers on Friday

September 25, 2006|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

The forecast for San Francisco on Friday evening calls for partly cloudy skies, a temperature in the 50s and a high probability of Hong-Chih Kuo's pitching for the Dodgers.

Officially, the Dodgers have not announced their starter for Friday against the Giants at AT&T Park, the opening game of their final regular-season series, saying they will hand the ball to Kuo or fellow rookie Chad Billingsley.

But given the way Kuo flattened the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday during the Dodgers' 5-1 victory at Dodger Stadium, there might not be any question.

"I would say that's obviously the way we're leaning," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said afterward. "He's given us no reason for us not to give him the ball on Friday."

All Kuo did Sunday was pitch seven superb innings in the most important game of an injury-plagued professional career that had spanned only 102 innings before this season.

The 25-year-old left-hander gave up four hits and one unearned run, and tied a career high with eight strikeouts.

"I love the way the guy pitches," Manager Grady Little said. "He gets the ball and he's kind of rapid-firing out there. The tempo that he takes to the field is good for everybody involved except for the hitter."

The Taiwanese sensation also rejuvenated a slumbering offense in the fifth inning with an opposite-field double off the left-field wall, his first major league hit.

He eventually scored the Dodgers' first run to tie the score and then held the Diamondbacks in check, giving up only one hit after the fourth inning.

"That was a huge hit for us," catcher Russell Martin said. "He did a little bit of everything."

Kuo has been a master at multi-tasking this season.

After making the Dodgers' opening-day roster as a reliever and struggling with his command, Kuo was demoted to triple-A Las Vegas in late April.

He returned to Los Angeles for a second stint in June, then was sent back down after a month and converted into a starter.

In his first major league start, against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium on Sept. 8, Kuo pitched six scoreless innings to lead the Dodgers to a 5-0 victory.

His numbers as a starter with the Dodgers -- 1-1 with a 2.59 earned-run average in four outings -- make a compelling case for inclusion in the 2007 starting rotation.

"He's opening some eyes," Honeycutt said. "We're just seeing continued improvement."

Kuo opened his professional career as a starter, but severe elbow injuries limited him to 18 games and 42 1/3 innings in his first four seasons and raised questions about his durability.

He required two elbow surgeries to replace ligaments.

"He's always been built to be a starter, but after the surgeries we didn't know how the arm was going to hold up," Honeycutt said. "Now we're seeing that he's holding up pretty good."

After issuing 26 walks in 30 1/3 innings as a reliever, Kuo has walked only seven in 24 1/3 innings as a starter, including two Sunday.

"I have time to warm up and get my pitches, my slider, working," Kuo said when asked why he had performed better as a starter. "I throw more breaking balls. I think that helps a little bit too."

Martin said Kuo needs a couple of innings to find himself.

"When you're in relief, you don't have that much time," Martin said.

"It's normally give one good inning, and that's it.

"But when he starts, he has time to really pound his fastball, and when he gets his fastball release point, everything comes together," Martin said.

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ben.bolch@latimes.com

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