LOS ANGELES -- It's taken Hong-Chih Kuo nine professional seasons, but he now has as many Major League victories as Tommy John operations (two). If pitching the Dodgers to a 4-1 win over the slumping Mets with seven strong innings Tuesday night wasn't milestone enough to celebrate for the star-crossed left-hander, you should have seen Kuo's bat flip while admiring his first Major League home run -- and first homer by any Taiwanese-born player. The theatrics were right out of the Reggie Jackson playbook, the bat traveling only a few hundred feet short of the tape-measure blast that completed back-to-back-to-back homers on consecutive pitches by the bottom of the Dodgers batting order in the second inning.
"I didn't mean to do that," Kuo said apologetically about the hot-dogging. "I hit it, I know I hit it hard." Wilson Betemit and Matt Kemp, inserted into the lineup by manager Grady Little, slugged the first two off John Maine. Kemp's landed in the sliver of fair loge seats, the first homer there since Olmedo Saenz did it in 2005. Kemp added a second RBI on an infield single in the sixth inning as the Dodgers moved into a three-way tie for first place in the National League West with the Padres and D-backs. "It won't match the four home runs we hit last year, but this was pretty exciting," said Kemp, referring to the September game against San Diego. Pretty exciting for sure for Kuo, who must like pitching against the Mets because he's never beaten anyone else. His maiden victory was last Sept. 8, a gutsy six scoreless innings in raucous Shea Stadium against a powerhouse team. That was the win that convinced management Kuo's elbow could withstand the rigors of starting. Until that emergency start, he had been overprotected and forced to pitch in relief, where he has said he's not comfortable. He tried to duplicate that win in Game 2 of the NL Division Series at Shea and was the losing pitcher, charged with two runs in 4 1/3 innings while the Dodgers were scratching out only one run off Tom Glavine in a 4-1 defeat. Kuo made history that night for starting a postseason game with the fewest Major League wins, but nothing about his career has been ordinary. He was signed out of Taiwan for $1.25 million as a teenager, blew out his elbow in his first professional game after striking out seven of the 10 batters he faced and it's been a nightmare ride ever since, including the five years he spent trying to get healthy. He's nothing if not persistent. He signed in 1999, meaning he's been in the organization longer than any current active Dodger. That year, Kevin Malone was general manager, Davey Johnson the field manager and Gary Sheffield and Eric Karros hit 34 homers. Each. His journey to the Major Leagues hit one pothole after another. He was taken off the Major League roster at one point and could have been taken by any club in the Rule 5 Draft. When his rehab stalled for the umpteenth time, he had to be talked out of quitting the game. He's often credited Darren Dreifort (two Tommy John surgeries) and Eric Gagne (one) for their advice and counsel to keep him going. Even this spring, when Little had Kuo penciled in as his fifth starter, a shoulder strain derailed him. He allowed the Padres only one run in six innings while dueling Jake Peavy last week, but Kuo wasn't satisfied with four walks, and in a bullpen session over the weekend, scrapped his windup and went exclusively out of the stretch. "I felt more comfortable that way," said Kuo, who walked only one while scattering five hits. "Sometimes I can't put it together with the windup and I overthrow." Kuo's fastball topped out at 91 mph, several ticks below his best last year, and he made it through the seven innings with 89 pitches. "I don't look at that," he said. "I got outs. I got ahead in counts and that was important." The home-run derby was pretty important for a club that ranked 15th of 16 in the league for home runs. It started with Betemit, getting his second start in three games at third base after essentially losing his starting job a month ago. His opposite-field shot to left-center traveled 408 feet and was his sixth of the year. Next up was Kemp, in only his second start since being recalled from Triple-A, pulling one 447 feet and just tucking it inside the left-field foul pole in the second deck. "They gave us good pitches to hit and we took advantage of it," Kemp said. "A first-pitch fastball and it was right there. I didn't know it went that far, I was just running the bases. Kuo really got a hold of one. It was a pretty good swing. He hit it pretty hard. He can hit. I've seen him hit balls really far in batting practice." The Dodgers had 10 hits, including two by Juan Pierre and a line single by Nomar Garciaparra, back in the lineup after sitting out two games. Jonathan Broxton and Takashi Saito finished up, each striking out a pair, Saito earning his 18th save.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.