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Kuo makes healthy strides on 51s’ mound

A left-handed power pitcher is one of baseball’s most coveted commodities. The Los Angeles Dodgers had to be drooling over one such prospect — Hong-Chih Kuo — in his first professional start.

Hitting the high 90s on the radar gun, the Taiwanese hurler struck out seven of the 10 batters he faced in three hitless, scoreless innings for Class-A San Bernardino in 2000.

But it turned out to be Kuo’s only appearance that year as he suffered a season-ending elbow injury in the game and then underwent the first of two Tommy John surgeries in three years.

He was limited to 18 games and 42 1/3 innings in his first five seasons in the Dodgers’ organization before finally regaining his form in 2005.

A sprained left shoulder suffered in spring training has set Kuo back this year, but he struck out seven of the 12 batters he faced in a rehabilitation start Wednesday as the 51s defeated Sacramento 8-7 in 12 innings at Cashman Field.

“It was very difficult, but right now I’m happy and healthy,” said Kuo, who hit 94 mph on the radar gun before getting pulled after 51 pitches, 31 for strikes. “I feel fine. I can throw everything I want. I just have to go out and try to make more pitches and throw more strikes.”

Kuo rose rapidly through the Dodgers’ system in 2005 and spent the final month of the season with the big league club, appearing in nine games.

Last year, Kuo, a high school teammate of Yankees starter Chien-Ming Wang, bounced between Las Vegas and Los Angeles as a reliever before being converted to a starter, a role he has thrived in.

“As a starter, he had a little bit better chance to warm up and get ready, so he was better prepared than trying to get up and be that situational lefty,” 51s pitching coach Ken Howell said. “Now we just have to get him healthy and get him back up (to the Dodgers) so he can help them.”

In five starts for Los Angeles last season, Kuo went 1-1 with a 3.07 ERA, including six scoreless innings in his first major league start, a win against the Mets at Shea Stadium on Sept. 8.

Kuo also started Game 2 of the division series against the Mets, allowing two runs in 4 1/3 innings of the loss.

“He pitched on the brightest stage you can be on and he was well composed,” Howell said. “Being in the playoffs and pennant race didn’t faze him one bit, and you can’t teach that part of the game. Those are things you have.”

Kuo, who was competing for the fifth spot in the Dodgers’ rotation before getting hurt, was on a pitch count of 55 against the River Cats, allowing two hits and a walk in 2 1/3 scoreless innings.

He will be on a pitch count of about 70 to 75 pitches next time out, 51s manager Lorenzo Bundy said.

“I just have to try to get better and stay healthy and do what I can do to get back (to Los Angeles),” Kuo said. “I’ve just got to keep working here and try to get ready.”

• NOTE — Las Vegas left-hander Tim Hamulack was placed on the seven-day disabled list with a strained forearm and right-hander Harold Eckert was activated from the DL.

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