Hong-Chih Kuo returns successfully

LOS ANGELES -- The inning was taking forever.

The Los Angeles Dodgers hadn't scored, and they wouldn't score, but they were picking now as the time to finally show patience at the plate? Now, when Hong-Chih Kuo was standing on a mound down in the bullpen, throwing a few pitches here and there but mostly just standing there, waiting, occasionally breaking the monotony by tossing a ball a few inches into the air and catching it?

He was the picture of calm on the outside, but on the inside, he had to have been going crazy, right?

He had to have been, instead of a pitcher in a bullpen, more like a bull in a pen, like at the rodeo, where the bull is kicking and snorting and practically dying to get out, the agitation growing with every minute that this interminable bottom of the seventh inning dragged on, right?

Well, not exactly.

"That was good for me," Kuo would say later, after the Dodgers' 6-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium. "It gave me more time to warm up so I could work on all my pitches."

Finally, Tony Gwynn flied out to center, the gate swung open, and Kuo came trotting onto a major league field in the middle of a game for the first time in 43 days, his having abruptly left the team May 11 because of a recurrence of the yips. The ovation didn't come until he had reached the mound and his name had been announced. There wasn't much on the line, the Dodgers already in front by a seemingly safe, five-run margin, but then, there was everything on the line for Kuo.

"We won't really know until he gets on the mound in a major league game," Dodgers medical services director Stan Conte had said last weekend, when it became clear Kuo was about to be activated from the disabled list after a handful of successful minor league rehabilitation appearances. And now, we were about to know.

Three batters and nine pitches later, Kuo, having turned in a perfect top of the eighth, was in the dugout, receiving congratulations from pretty much everybody there. They were all really happy for him. Mostly, though, they were just relieved.

"I'm sure guys were excited," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "This is a guy guys love, and we know he has been through a ton with all the arm injuries and all the other things. He has worked so hard, and I don't think the guys want to see anybody in the position he was in before. It was definitely nice to see him back pretty close to normal."

Kuo's DL stint was his second this season and his sixth in the past five years, and that doesn't even count the two Tommy John surgeries he underwent before he ever got to the majors. But this was different, not only from all those previous physical issues but also from his previous bout with the yips, which was visible to anyone watching from the moment he threw a ball from the bullpen into left field while warming up one night.

This time, it was more subtle, to the point no one on the outside really knew he had it until he was gone.

"I just didn't feel good," he said. "I had lost my confidence. I can't really try to explain it. The ball just didn't come out the way I wanted it to. As a pitcher, when you throw the ball, you want to throw it the way you want to. You want the ball to feel right. Even though I was throwing strikes, it wasn't coming out.

"I tried to deal with it for a couple of weeks, but there came a time when I just wasn't helping the team that way."

Are those issues behind him now? For now they are. That's the weird thing about this problem: you never really know if, or when, it's going to come back. For Kuo, whose left arm seems at times to be held together with baling wire, every pitch he throws potentially could be a career-ender. To that sobering reality, add the fact Kuo now has to wonder if this is really behind him for good -- a question that can't be answered in the affirmative until he retires and looks back to see that it never came back.

When Kuo was activated Sunday morning, Mattingly said he hoped to get him into a game quickly, just to put everyone's mind -- and especially Kuo's -- at ease that Kuo was back to his old self. But Mattingly also said he wanted to ease Kuo back in a fairly innocuous situation, and as luck would have it, the Dodgers (34-41) played two fairly tight games Sunday and Monday, winning them both.

But with two dangerous left-handed hitters due up for the Tigers in the eighth in Brennan Boesch and Andy Dirks, and switch-hitting power threat Victor Martinez wedged between them, Mattingly saw the perfect opportunity.

Mattingly later admitted he was nervous about how it was going to go for Kuo.

"A little bit," he said. "Obviously, you want to see him do well. But he has been throwing the ball well and he feels good, and you trust that he is being honest with you when he tells you that."

The velocity on Kuo's fastball was a little off what it normally is, but it had been right on target during his rehab assignment, so nobody seemed too concerned about it. A.J. Ellis, who had caught Kuo's final two rehab appearances after the assignment was moved last week from advanced Single-A Rancho Cucamonga to Triple-A Albuquerque, coincidentally was called up Sunday as well, and coincidentally was behind the plate for Kuo's return against the Tigers.

"I was so happy for him tonight," Ellis said. "He was pounding the strike zone and using all his pitches, and he was confident out there. He had that look in him that I have seen a lot. He was exactly the same [as the rehabs], no difference at all. I'm happy I got to catch his first one back, because I feel like we have built up a pretty good relationship over the last few years."

With the pecking order in the Dodgers' bullpen having basically been all shot to heck this season anyway, Mattingly said he won't limit Kuo to his customary eighth-inning setup role, that he instead will let the situation dictate the appropriate time. But Kuo won't be babied. He remains a key figure for this fourth-place team that suddenly has clawed back to within 6 1/2 games of the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West and has a chance Wednesday to sweep a series for the first time this season.

The Dodgers need the version of Kuo they can't count on. For the moment, that appears to be the version of Kuo they have.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.