As he has many times this year, Hiroki Kuroda will walk into the unknown when he takes the mound for the Dodgers tonight as they try to eliminate the Chicago Cubs in Game 3 of their best-of-five National League division series at Dodger Stadium.
For the Dodgers, the game marks a chance to win a playoff series for the first time in 20 years. For Kuroda, the game will be his first in the postseason in 12 years as a professional player.
“I’m trying not to think about that aspect of it too much,” said Kuroda, who was 9-10 with a 3.73 earned-run average in his first major league season.
Spraying champagne in the faces of teammates, as he did on the day the Dodgers clinched the NL West title, was something the 33-year-old right-hander never had a chance to do in Japan, where he pitched for the Hiroshima Carp. The small-market club finished in the top half of the six-team Central League only once and never made the postseason in Kuroda’s 11 seasons.
So when the champagne corks were popped and the beer bottles were opened, Kuroda, 33, didn’t hold back and became one of the kids.
“This year was a long year,” he said. “That I was able to win something made everything worthwhile. There were some really tough times.”
And that wasn’t only off the field, where he had to try to learn a new language.
What Kuroda, who signed a three-year, $35.3-million contract in the winter, found most difficult about his move to the majors was pitching every five days. He was used to pitching once a week in Japan.
“I didn’t think it would be that hard,” Kuroda said. “I was relieved to get through the year. When the regular season was over, I was glad.”
The experience has Kuroda convinced that he has to make adjustments to his off-season training regimen.
“It’s a completely different feeling,” Kuroda said of how his arm felt in August and September.
But he said he also felt different emotionally in those months.
“Because we were in contention, every time I pitched, I felt I had a real sense of purpose,” he said.
Kuroda was 4-2 with a 2.57 ERA over his 11 starts in the last two months of the season.
Though Kuroda isn’t certain, his guess is that pitching in the playoffs won’t be significantly different than pitching in the regular season.
“I always put a lot of pressure on myself,” he said.
The Dodgers’ might have taken off some of that pressure Thursday, when they beat the Cubs, 10-3, at Wrigley Field to take a 2-0 lead in the series.
Kuroda was in the air while the game was being played, having boarded an earlier flight home to Los Angeles so he could get extra sleep. He learned of the result when his plane landed.
Asked what he expected from Kuroda, Dodgers Manager Joe Torre replied, “We know he’s the only one that got sleep. That’s the one thing I can say. Hopefully, he’s the pitcher he has been before against the Cubs.”
That pitcher was dominant.
He gave up one run in 6 2/3 innings at Wrigley Field but lost.
Facing the Cubs again two starts later, this time at Dodger Stadium, Kuroda struck out 11 and gave up only four hits in a complete-game shutout, the first thrown by a Dodgers pitcher in three years.
Backup catcher Danny Ardoin, who was behind the plate for both of Kuroda’s starts against the Cubs, said that the key for Kuroda in those games was his two-seam fastball. It was particularly useful against a team stacked with as many right-handed hitters as the Cubs, as the pitch runs in on them.
“It opens up the outer half of the plate for his other pitches,” Ardoin said.
Namely, his slider.
“But,” Kuroda warned, “that was a long time ago. They’re a different team now.”
And he might be a different pitcher.