LOS ANGELES -- Last year, to the utter shock of anybody who has seen an MRI of his left elbow, Hong-Chih Kuo stayed healthy enough to finally showcase that star-crossed arm, winning MLB.com's Setup Man of the Year Award.
The 42 appearances and 80 innings, however, took their toll. In mid-September he was shut down, missing the first round of playoffs. He was activated for the National League Championship Series and pitched three innings.
Despite being babied this Spring Training and making the Opening Day roster, Kuo suffered through a shaky April (6.75 ERA with four walks in 5 1/3 innings), was placed on the disabled list retroactive to April 30 and he's still there with no sign of a return. His loss has been mitigated by the unexpected emergence of Ramon Troncoso and rookie Ronald Belisario, although one can only imagine how good the Dodgers' bullpen would be with a healthy Kuo.
When, or if, that will happen again remains a big unknown. Manager Joe Torre said Kuo has been unable to find one consistent release point, and changing release points results in no command. Torre said Kuo changes release points to compensate for discomfort. As Kuo told Torre: "There's always something there."
What the discomfort does to Kuo isn't pretty, as Kuo showed when he tried to warm up to enter a game May 1. He made 15 warmup throws, only four of which were catchable by Brad Ausmus. Two cleared the top of the bullpen gate and rolled onto the field during the game. Kuo yielded the bullpen mound to Will Ohman and the next day was placed on the disabled list.
Kuo said nobody's mentioned a fifth elbow operation to cure his problems, and they shouldn't waste their time if he needs one.
"I'm not having another operation," he said, meaning he'll retire before going through another year-long recovery.
For now, said Kuo, he's hoping an ongoing rehab program restores arm strength so he can find that release point and regain his command.
"I can play catch," he said. "It's a little tender. It just needs time to get stronger."
Kuo, who had to be talked out of quitting when he underwent a second Tommy John elbow-ligament replacement surgery in 2003?, said he hasn't given up.
"Not yet," he said.
But he has no idea when he can get back on a mound or throw a bullpen session or a Minor League rehab assignment. Returning to the Major Leagues is still off in the distance.
"I'm not getting down," he said. "I think I'll be able to pitch again."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.