Young Lefty Ready to Reach Potential

<b>VERO BEACH, Florida</b>-- Just when you think the baseball obituary of Hong Chi Kuo has been written, you look at a practice mound and there he is. It occurs to you that this guy has come back from the grave more times than Dracula.

It was in 2000 that the lefthander from Taiwan, whose signing caused something of a turmoil on his native island, felt something snap in his elbow while delivering the next-to-last pitch of his three-inning professional debut. Tommy John surgery ensued and the Loch Ness monster has more appearances than he has since then.

He had shown so much before than incident that he was assigned to high Class A at the age of 19 without professional experience. In that game, he struck out seven of the 10 batters he faced, walking one and allowing no hits. Observers said he had major league quality stuff.

But there were to be only 19 innings the next season, 14 in 2002 and none at all in 2003. Along the way, there was another major operation plus numerous scopings to clean out debris. On each occasion, he would come back, show of glimmer of what had been, then complain of pain.

Last summer, it was hoped he was over the hump. Sent to Columbus, he worked three innings each in two games and finally, finally gained his first victory. But the pain returned and it was back on the shelf.

"There were calcified buildups that were rubbing on a nerve," reports Rick Honeycutt, the Dodger organizational pitching coordinator. "But I've been working with him since early February and he's throwing free and easy. Always before, there was a way he threw that you knew something was bothering him. Now, though, he's thrown a number of 'pens' and, I have to say, the ball just jumps out of his hand."

And Kuo is in agreement, which is a change in style, too, for in the times too numerous to count that he was asked how he felt, he had always admitted to some aches. Now, he insists he feels great, is throwing all three of his pitches, and has reached the low 90's in velocity with his fast ball.

As for when he can get into competition once more, he replies, "I'm ready to go now" and that, too, is a major adjustment in his thinking.

"We're just trying to build his confidence and get him out there, " says Honeycutt. " I'm not sure how far he can go -- an inning, two; it really doesn't matter at this stage. We hope to stretch him out as the season progresses."

Honeycutt has viewed Kuo in his good moments in the past. "They'd be there for a little bit, then disappear. The thing I believe about Tommy John surgery, though, is that when you come back, you usually have as much stuff as you had before. Now, most pitchers haven't had as many problems as Kuo's had but I do think he can get back to something like he was."

That would be special if it happens for few young pitchers have looked some promising as Kuo did. Now, at age 23 he thinks he's ready to move forward at long last.

Kuo's here as part a rehab group which was joined Thursday by Greg Miller, the lefthander whose return is the most eagerly anticipated. Miller, who missed all of last season after his shoulder was scoped, recently had an operation to shave his clavicle, a procedure which is hoped will relieve the pain he endured all summer. He 's hoping to make it to the mound in two months.

Another set to return from arm surgery is Ryan Carter, an outfielder who hit .313 for Ogden in 2003 before elbow surgery cost him all of last season. "I'm throwing at about 90 percent now," he reports. "I think I'll be ready. Hey, all I have to do is hit the cutoff man. How many times do you have to make a strong throw to the plate? Once a week, maybe? I can handle that."