Chad Billingsley has already thrown seven bullpen sessions this year. Jason Schmidt has tossed almost as many.
Monday, Hiroki Kuroda threw his first.
“It went better than I thought it would,” he said.
That came as a mild relief for Kuroda, who Manager Joe Torre said was one of the two most likely candidates to start on opening day. Billingsley is the other.
Waiting until spring training to start throwing off a mound isn’t unusual in Japan, where Kuroda spent the first 11 years of his professional career. What was unusual for the 34-year-old right-hander about this off-season was that the wait wasn’t imposed by custom but by tendinitis in his shoulder.
The discomfort Kuroda said he felt for the majority of last season was absent in his 30-pitch session, reinforcing his belief that he was right to decline an invitation to pitch for Japan in the World Baseball Classic and spend most of his off-season rehabilitating his shoulder at Dodger Stadium.
The work in the trainer’s room came at the expense of English lessons he had hoped to take this winter.
“My 6-year-old daughter understands a lot more English than I do,” he said in Japanese, laughing. “My English isn’t progressing at all.”
With Takashi Saito’s signing with the Boston Red Sox leaving the Dodgers without any other Japanese-speaking players, Kuroda sat alone most of the time he was in the clubhouse over the first three days of camp.
But he said he’s far more comfortable than he was a year ago, when, he said, “I couldn’t tell left from right.”
He knows his teammates. His coaches know him. The abundance of Japanese restaurants in the Dodgers’ new spring home of Arizona makes up for the departure of “Chef Saito,” who often cooked for him last spring in Vero Beach.
Kuroda, who threw 183 1/3 innings last year, said his goal is to pitch 200 innings this year. He said he expects to be better prepared to be part of a five-man rotation, something he had trouble dealing with after being part of six-man rotations in Japan for so many years.
Kuroda said he would spend the spring working on developing a changeup, which wasn’t part of his repertoire last year.
The former ace of the Hiroshima Carp acknowledged he was displeased with how he pitched last season, when he was 9-10 with a 3.73 earned-run average in the first year of his three-year, $35.3-million contract. The only parts of the year that he felt positively about, he said, were the two games he won in the playoffs.
“He not only did OK, he dominated,” Torre said of Kuroda’s 1.46 ERA in the postseason.
Asked whether he felt added pressure this year because of the departures of Derek Lowe and Brad Penny, Kuroda laughed nervously.
“Just by you talking to me about that, I’m feeling pressure,” he said.
Chin-lung Hu said his vision problems aren’t completely behind him. Watching television, he said, images sometimes blur.
“My eyeball is moving,” Hu said doctors told him.
But the Dodgers’ former minor league player of the year doesn’t know what’s wrong with his right eye, which he partially blamed for his .181 average in 65 major league games last season and a trip to the disabled list.
“I think it’s getting better,” he said.
Intent on earning a spot on the Dodgers’ opening-day roster as a middle infielder, Hu declined an invitation to represent Taiwan in the WBC.
Russell Martin, who suffered a strained left foot last week, will run today for the first time at camp. “I’m starting to feel guilty,” he said of watching his teammates in conditioning drills. . . . Andre Ethier’s arbitration case is scheduled for today. When Ethier and the Dodgers exchanged salary figures last month, Ethier asked for $3.75 million and the Dodgers offered $2.65 million.