Kuo collects TYIB Setup Man Award

Kuo collects TYIB Setup Man Award

LOS ANGELES -- Hong-Chih Kuo was so effective pitching for the Dodgers this past season, he not only won MLB.com's annual This Year in Baseball Award as best setup man, he's now in the mix with Jonathan Broxton for the closer role if Takashi Saito does not return.

Kuo was chosen as the 2008 Setup Man in MLB.com's annual This Year in Baseball Awards presented by State Farm, which was voted on by fans. A record 12 million votes were cast, eclipsing last year's total of 9.6 million.

Kuo won with 30.3 percent of the vote. He was followed by Grant Balfour of the Rays (19.2 percent), Carlos Marmol of the Cubs (17.6), Scot Shields of the Angels (7.5), Brad Ziegler of the Athletics (6.1), Scott Downs of the Blue Jays (4.9), Mike Adams of the Padres (4.5), Dan Wheeler of the Rays (4.2), Taylor Buchholz of the Rockies (3.8) and Chad Qualls of the Diamondbacks (2.1).

Kuo went 5-3 with a 2.14 ERA and his first career save in 42 games (including three starts), allowing only 60 hits in a career-high 80 innings while striking out 96 and only walking 21. His relief ERA of 1.69 led the league (minimum of 50 innings), and opponents hit only .204 against him.

As impressive as those numbers were, what really mattered was he stayed healthy. Kuo 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 wild ride ever since. That includes the first five years he spent trying to get healthy, when he pitched a total of 42 1/3 innings (averaging fewer than nine innings per year).

He's nothing if not persistent. Kuo signed in 1999, meaning he's been in the organization longer than any current active Dodgers player other than Jason Repko, who signed a week earlier. That year, Kevin Malone was general manager, Davey Johnson the field manager and Gary Sheffield and Eric Karros hit 34 home runs -- each.

Kuo's journey to the Major Leagues hit one pothole after another. He missed 2003 entirely, was taken off the Major League roster at one point and could have been selected 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 has often credited Darren Dreifort (who underwent two Tommy John surgeries) and Eric Gagne (one) for their advice and counsel to keep him going. As recently as 2007, he had rotator cuff problems and elbow surgery, and his career was in jeopardy.

But Kuo is nothing if not determined. He showed up for Spring Training in 2008 with a new manager and not really being counted on for anything. He caught Joe Torre's eye with two scoreless innings of relief against the Padres during the Dodgers' goodwill series in China, and he made the club with a 1.69 spring ERA while holding opponents to a .121 average.

Because of Kuo's injury history, Torre treated the native of Taiwan like fine China early on. When he used Kuo in multiple innings, the manager tried to give him multiple days off. In games in which Kuo pitched multiple innings, his ERA was 0.38. His longest outing was 4 1/3 innings, and in one game he struck out eight of the 11 batters he retired. By June, Kuo had supplanted Joe Beimel as the club's primary left-handed reliever.

The workload finally got to Kuo. He was limited to only one appearance from early September to early October, missing the first round of the playoffs, because of triceps discomfort, but he returned for the National League Championship Series and allowed one earned run in three innings.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.