Tuesday night's battle of the Dodgers and Diamondbacks at Chase Field is a contest between a pitcher pitching his first major league game, Jarrod Parker, and a pitcher who might be pitching in his last major league game. Hiroki Kuroda makes his final start of the season tonight. He has said it is 50/50 between staying a Dodger or returning to his native Japan, per MLB.com:
"Every offseason I think the coming season will be my last," he said. "I thought that last year. You never know what happens. I think every start could be my last start. I don't know when my last year will be, I don't know when my last start will be."
When Kuroda signed a three-year, $35.3 million contract with the Dodgers in December 2007, I had no idea what to expect. The soon-to-be 33-year old was 13-6 with a 1.85 ERA with the Hiroshima Carp in 2006, but followed that up with a 12-8 season with a 3.56 ERA that was more in line with the 3.69 ERA he posted in his 1,700 innings in 11 seasons in the Japanese Central League.
Kuroda was slated to be the fourth starter behind Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, and Chad Billingsley in 2008, and it spawned my first guest post on Dodger Thoughts, a precursor of sorts to my writing here at True Blue LA. I sought an answer to the question, "What is a fourth starter?" and came to this conclusion:
What does this mean for Kuroda? If they can get more than 124 IP with an ERA+ of 96 or more out of their newest Japanese import, they will be above average in the National League, and I'd call his season a success.
Kuroda was 9-10 with a 3.73 ERA (a 112 ERA+) in 183 1/3 innings in 2008, then closed out the Chicago Cubs in the NLDS to secure the first playoff series win for the Dodgers in 20 years. Kuroda also got the only win for the Dodgers in the NLCS against the Phillies.
In 2009, Kuroda started, and won, on opening day in San Diego but then missed two months with a strained oblique. That wasn't the last of his injury concerns that season, as he also was hit in the head by a line drive off the bat of Rusty Ryal on August 15. Kuroda missed three weeks with a concussion, though getting hit in the head is not something easily forgotten.
You won't find a Dodger teammate that doesn't respect and admire Kuroda, especially for his warrior mentality. Though he still occasionally thinks about the line drive, he doesn't let it affect his work on the mound. "If I had run away from that problem, I might not be able to play baseball at all," Kuroda told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times last season.
Kuroda came back in September 2009 but missed the NLDS with a neck injury. He was inserted back into the rotation for the NLCS, but perhaps a bit too early as Kuroda got bombed in Game 3, allowing six runs while recording four outs.
In his four seasons with the Dodgers, Kuroda has been remarkably consistent:
He hasn't received much run support this year, or in any of his four years, as evidenced by a 41-46 career record despite being a well above average starting pitcher. At 13-16 this season, Kuroda has set career highs in both wins and losses. It's almost as if individual wins and losses aren't the best barometer of pitcher performance.
Kuroda could have been traded in July, which made sense given that the Dodgers were out of the pennant chase by then and Kuroda was one of the best starters available on the market. He could have brought some prospects for the farm system in return, but Kuroda decided to exercise his no-trade clause and remain with the Dodgers.
It was not an easy decision for Kuroda, who said on July 30, "I, like any player here, would like to win and I know how it feels to pitch in the playoffs. I know how exciting that can be, so I had to really fight to come to this conclusion." In the end, it was about loyalty for Kuroda, who wanted to remain with the team he chose nearly four years ago.
Kuroda hasn't yet made his decision whether to come back to the Dodgers or return to Japan. He has been a very good pitcher in his four years in Los Angeles, and is a player who not only wants to win but wants to win as a Dodger. It would be great to have Kuroda back for another season, but if tonight is it, thanks for everything Hiroki.
Game Time: 6:40 p.m.