"It's been tough, going through and having the struggles," Kuhl said. "Games like tonight … seeing it all come together, kind of made it all worth it."
Kuhl completed six innings in only two of his first 15 starts. He's done so four times in his last six scheduled starts. In seven appearances since July 1, including a three-inning spot start on two days' rest, Kuhl has posted a 2.70 ERA.
"He's growing and getting better every day, every time out there. The sky's the limit," catcher Chris Stewart said. "The stuff's incredible. It's a matter of him controlling that and going out and doing what he can do."
Kuhl arrived in Pittsburgh last summer with a reputation for producing ground balls, relying on a sinker/slider mix to efficiently pitch deep into games. A few weeks into this season, he found his four-seam fastball velocity had ticked up into the high 90s. The curveball he'd experimented with during between-starts bullpen sessions was effective enough to use in games.
He's had to figure out, from start to start, which pitches are working and how he can best use them.
Left-handed hitters have been an issue for Kuhl this season, and they entered Thursday's start with a .294 average and .917 OPS against him; to put that in perspective, it was as if every left-handed hitter who faced him carried Andrew McCutchen's production. But he held Cincinnati's six left-handed or switch-hitters to just two hits in 14 at-bats Thursday, striking out four and twice walking Joey Votto.
"Joey was able to grind him out for a base hit and a couple of walks," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "Beyond that, we weren't able to do a lot."
Before Thursday's game, manager Clint Hurdle mentioned that pitch efficiency was the next barrier for Kuhl to clear. He was in command of both fastballs Thursday, an effective combination that kept Cincinnati's lineup off-balance and helped him get through seven innings on 95 pitches.
Against their left-handed hitters, Kuhl ran his two-seamer down and away, then snuck his four-seamer up and inside. He threw sliders and changeups to both right-handers and lefties.
"That's been the biggest thing this year, is mixing those fastballs," Kuhl said. "Being able to throw a two-seamer down and away, then ride a four-seamer up and in. That's really the major key, executing them."
More than anything else, Kuhl has had to get to know himself this season. If Thursday night was any indication, he's well on his way to figuring out what he can be.
"We're still moving the pieces around on who he is, giving him the opportunity to go out and create or watch him, through experience, create the guy who he can be," Hurdle said. "I don't think we've got our fingerprint on that yet. … There's been continuous growth from the beginning until now. I'm just enjoying the ride."