LOS ANGELES -- When he arrived at Dodger Stadium on Sunday following a two-week stint on the disabled list and a three-game rehabilitation gig in the California League, Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Hong-Chih Kuo looked different. Gone was the wild hairdo he had previously sported -- the Kuo-hawk, as some had called it, or the Kuo's Nest as others had called it -- replaced by a no-nonsense, military-style crew cut.
Once he got on the mound in the ninth inning, though, Kuo looked pretty much the same.
He fell behind in counts. He struggled with his command. He walked a batter and hit another one. He got hit hard. And ultimately, in a 7-0 loss to the San Diego Padres before 39,869 that was already a lost cause before Kuo even jogged in from the bullpen, he was charged with four earned runs in one-third of an inning, inflating his ERA for the season to a ghastly 15.00.
The most obvious question this raised, of course, was whether Kuo had sufficiently recovered from the left lower-back strain that had landed him on the shelf in the first place. Club officials had debated having him make one more rehab appearance for advanced Class A Rancho Cucamonga, but they ultimately decided -- based largely on Kuo's contention that his back felt fine -- to activate him before the game.
To clear a roster spot, the Dodgers optioned one of their most dependable relievers, Kenley Jansen, to Double-A Chattanooga, partly because they want Jansen to add something offspeed to his fastball-heavy repertoire but mostly because Jansen was the only reliever they had who still had minor league options.
"It happens," Kuo said. "I'm not perfect. I can't go out there perfect every time. I have to get it done better than that."
But the thing is, for the past couple of years, Kuo has been perfect, or pretty darn close to it. That is what makes this whole thing such a concern, even though neither manager Don Mattingly nor pitching coach Rick Honeycutt would admit that it was. Over the past three seasons, as Kuo morphed into one of the best eighth-inning setup men in the league, he averaged 2.9 walks per nine innings and had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.9:1.
In five appearances this season, Kuo has walked five batters in three innings.
"He tells us he is healthy," Mattingly said. "He threw back to back a couple of times, once (before) the rehab when he was in Arizona (at extended spring training) and then once with Rancho Cucamonga, and he was able to do that. We just have to see where we go from here. Obviously we aren't seeing the same velocity. He was at 93 (mph) here and there, but for the most part, it was right around 90."
Mattingly was basing that upon the gun reading on the scoreboard, which isn't always reliable. Honeycutt said he went into the video room after the game and saw a completely different reading on the television broadcast.
"He was pretty much 90-93," Honeycutt said. "He hasn't gotten back to his full maximum yet, but he still had good stuff. He still isn't completely sharp, obviously. We just wanted to get him back out there and see what he had. He just needs to keep working. I know he is going to work hard and try to get back to where he knows he can."
The Dodgers (14-15) -- who remained in a second-place tie with the San Francisco Giants in the National League West, 4 1/2 games behind the Colorado Rockies -- actually had a suitable, low-risk situation in which to bring Kuo back and gauge his progress. They were down only 3-0 going into that ninth inning, but given the strength of the Padres bullpen and the way the Dodgers had been shut down all afternoon by starter Dustin Moseley (1-3) and reliever Mike Adams, there was little reason to believe the Dodgers would rally.
Kuo faced five batters and recorded just one out, a called third strike on Chris Denorfia. Before that, he had walked Cameron Maybin and given up a line single to center to Brad Hawpe. After Denorfia, Jorge Cantu got to Kuo for an RBI single, and when Kuo subsequently plunked Will Venable to load the bases, Mattingly came to get him.
Honeycutt didn't rule out the possibility that while trying to pitch through his back injury before being disabled, Kuo might have thrown his mechanics out of whack.
"You just never know (about that)," Honeycutt said. "It's nothing we're concerned about. That is why we wanted him to get back to feeling good. You can do stuff on the side and in minor league games, but now, he has to get back to that (level) we know he can."
And in a Dodgers bullpen that now has a 5.47 ERA, where closer Jonathan Broxton is as adventurous as ever and the fireballing Jansen isn't even there anymore, Kuo needs to get there as quickly as possible.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.