In December of 2007, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Japanese pitcher Hiroki Kuroda to a three year 35.3 million dollar contract out of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp from the NPB in Japan. He had put up solid numbers over his career up to that point, though nothing spectacular for the Carp. At the time of the signing he was slated to be a middle of the rotation starter with Billingsley still developing, and behind the 1-2 combo of Brad Penny and Derek Lowe. Everyone expected Kuroda to be a solid, middle of the rotation starter, but not many could have expected Kuroda to be so strong and durable and become such a fan favorite in his, what turned out to be a four year stint with the Dodgers
In Kuroda's first season with the Dodgers, despite only having a 9-10 record, he lived up to the middle of the rotation status starting 31 games for 183.1 innings and putting up a 3.73 ERA and 3.59 FIP with a 3.6 fWAR. As a Dodger fan I couldn't have hoped for more from him that season. In a season where the Dodger fought and scrapped to make the playoffs ahead of the rival Diamondbacks, it wasn't only Manny who put the Dodgers on his back, but Kuroda as well. In his last 11 starts, he pitched 66.2 innings with a 2.57 ERA with 47 strikeouts, 11 walks, three home runs, and a .599 OPS against.
In a time where Brad Penny was either hurt or just downright ineffective, Kuroda was a God-send. He picked up a lot of the slack for the team at the time. When people think about the 2008 playoff run, the first person that comes to mind is Manny Ramirez, and rightfully so, though a lot of the credit should go to Hiroki Kuroda as well, because without him the Dodgers would have never made the playoffs that season.
Now we get to the 2008 playoffs. As a Dodger fan born in 1989, not only had I never experienced a World Series winning team, but I had never been to a playoff game even though I have lived an hour away from Los Angeles my entire life. Once the Dodgers clinched the division, I knew I had to go. The way things ended up, I had purchased tickets for Game Four of the NLDS against the Chicago Cubs. Since the Cubs were a 97 win team, going against our 84 win Dodgers, I knew getting Game Four tickets would be a gamble, but they were the ones I got, so I just had to hope at the very least the Dodgers could hold the intimidating Cubs off for at least one game.
We all know what happened in the first game with James "Big Bat" Loney taking all the wind from the sales of the Cubbies with one fell swoop and a swing of the bat. Then in game two young stud pitcher Chad Billingsley pitched a great game and put the Cubs down two games to none. I was worried at this point that I would get to see a playoff game at all, but for all the best reasons. As it happens, my uncle heard I was going to Game Four, and decided to get tickets for Game Three, and in typical Uncle Bill style got an extra ticket for me to go with him and my cousin.
This being my first playoff game, it was clearly going to be special to me. Even with the Dodgers up 2-0 in the series, I still had my worries that the Dodgers could close it out in only three games. If this game had been two weeks later, I would have never thought that way at all. Little did I know, all Kuroda needed was a first-inning two-run double from James Loney and that was it. Hiroki pitched a brilliant 6.1 innings allowing six hits and two walks while striking out four and allowing no runs. There I had it, my first ever playoff game, with our "rookie" pitcher dominating the lineup of the 97 win Cubs team to finish up the sweep for the Dodgers first playoff series win since 1988. Thanks to Hiroki Kuroda, there was no doubt that I got to be there in person to watch the team celebrate this great event, which was almost completely unknown to so many of the players involved, and to this fan specifically.
After the great showing in the NLDS against the Cubs, the Dodgers were on to the NLCS to face the Philadelphia Phillies. Even though they had lost more games than the Cubs, I was worried more about the Phillies because of the great strength of their lineup. Even still, I had hope. Then two games passed, and things weren't looking good, going down 2-0, but the series was coming back to L.A., so it couldn't be all bad.
I remember going to work at Home Depot that day, just hoping to get through the shift then get home and watch as much of the game as I could. But while I was working, I got a call from my friend Cory. As I pick up he asks me: "Do you want to go to the Dodger game?" I was almost shocked for two reasons: 1. I wouldn't turn down an offer like that for almost anything. And 2. Like that's even a question that needs to be asked. I went inside and found a manager I knew liked sports, told him about the free ticket, and he told me I looked pretty sick and should probably go home immediately. I couldn't say no to that, now could I?
As many recall, Game Two Chad Billingsley got knocked around, even having opposing pitcher Brett Myers go 3-3 against him. That wasn't the only item of interest, as Brett Myers was pitching too far inside for a lot of people's taste, and fairly or unfairly it was thought that Billingsley should have buzzed some players inside himself. Billingsley never did and that has been held against him ever since (unfortunately). But Hiroki Kuroda had different ideas. Early on in the game Kuroda pitched above the head of Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino, after which Shane yelled out to Kuroda to "hit him in the ribs". During the yelling from Shane, Kuroda stood there looking fearless, and doing what some feel is necessary to show you won't take whatever your opponent wants to dish out. I believe, for many people, this was the moment that Kuroda became a fan favorite.
As for the rest of the game, the Dodgers jumped on Jamie Moyer early for six runs in less than two innings, with Kuroda pitching another very good six innings with five hits and one walk while striking out three and allowing only two runs. That game ended up being the only Dodger win of the series, but what a game it was. I definitely can't say the 2008 NLCS wasn't disappointing, but there were definitely some great things that came out of it.
After the 2008 season, there were things like Kuroda taking the liner off his head and coming back two weeks later and showing his toughness, and then the next two seasons in 2010 and 2011 showing he was more than a middle of the rotation pitcher, and that he could be a good 2 to anyone's 1.Unfortunately now he has been replaced with Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang, and he is now a Yankee, but even so I wish him nothing but good and will always remember him and what he did for this team.
His entire time here was great in my eyes, but it was the 2008 season, especially post season that put Hiroki Kuroda into the Dodger Hall of Fan Fame for me.