PITTSBURGH — Chad Kuhl‘s long road back from Tommy John surgery is over.
More than two years removed from wondering where his career was heading after doctors reconfigured his mangled right elbow, Kuhl will be Pittsburgh’s opening day starter in Chicago on Thursday when the Pirates face the Cubs.
The 28-year-old is the longest-tenured starter on a staff that is largely inexperienced and largely anonymous. The void left by the offseason departures of Jameson Taillon, Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams and Chris Archer is palpable. Kuhl knows he will play a major role in trying to fill it.
“We talk about the guys that have left and there’s a lot of leadership, a lot of innings to take up, a lot of youth on this team,” he said. “So it adds to the leadership role that me and (Steven) Brault and those guys are trying to take over. It’s just trying to lead by example, do the right things.”
Kuhl underwent reconstructive elbow surgery in September 2018. He missed all of 2019 and was handled largely with kid gloves last summer when he finally returned to the majors. After speculation he would be moved to the bullpen, he instead worked his way back into the rotation.
The right-hander went 2-3 with a 4.27 ERA in 11 games, nine of them starts that came with restrictive pitch counts. Kuhl threw 46 1/3 innings in the pandemic-shortened season, though he finished with a flourish. He limited the Cubs to two hits over seven shutout innings in his final start.
He’s been Pittsburgh’s most consistent pitcher during spring training, though he’s only put in eight innings of work. How long a leash he’ll be given on April Fool’s Day at Wrigley Field is anyone’s guess.
“I’m sure there’s a number, but that’s not really in the back of my mind at all,” Kuhl said. “It’s just I’m going to go out there and pitch until (manager Derek) Shelton takes the ball.”
It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks for Kuhl. His wife, Amanda, delivered the couple’s first child, a boy named Hudson, on March 19. The joy he’s experienced recently made the grind of what it took to get back to the majors worth it.
“It comes full circle now, to be named opening day starter,” Kuhl said. “It’s a blessing. Outside of baseball, with a son, it means the world. It’s just awesome.”
It might also come with a bit of trepidation. Kuhl is the fifth opening day starter for Pittsburgh in as many years. He’s watched Taillon, Musgrove and former teammates Ivan Nova and Gerrit Cole all head out there for Game 1 for what turned out to be a fleeting moment of recognition before they made their way out of town.
Kuhl, however, isn’t worried about the future. Considering the path he’s taken to get to this point, he’s not taking anything for granted.
“The biggest thing is to look around at all of the matchups around the league and to be one of those is just a really cool experience as a fan of the game,” he said. “Obviously, you take it all in and enjoy, but once the game starts it’s just going to be another ballgame as usual and you go out there and compete.”
NOTES: Kevin Newman, who is hitting .645 during spring training, beat out Erik Gonzalez to be the opening day shortstop. … Pittsburgh optioned RHP Jeff Hartlieb and reassigned OF Brian Goodwin, IF Wilmer Difo, RHP Chase De Jong, LHP Chasen Shreve and RHP Steven Wright, who was signed last week.