Dodgers’ Hiroki Kuroda bears psychological scars from taking a line drive to the head

On the surface, everything appears fine. More than fine, actually.

Hiroki Kuroda, who didn’t win more than nine games in either of his first two seasons, already has seven. Along with Clayton Kershaw, the 35-year-old right-hander from Japan has stabilized a Dodgers rotation that has been hindered by health problems and inexperience.

Kuroda is 10 1/2 months removed from the day he was hit in the head by a ball off the bat of Rusty Ryal of the Arizona Diamondbacks. His start on Friday will be his second at Chase Field since the incident; he had no problems in the first, pitching 7 1/3 innings and earning a win.

But even if the memory of taking a line drive off his skull hasn’t affected his pitching — he goes into his start with a 3.27 earned-run average — Kuroda acknowledges that something about him has changed.

“Does a person who has been in a major car accident ever completely forget about it?” he asked.

Kuroda sees the injury as one of the reasons he didn’t pitch well for a large part of spring training. The problem he had was mechanical, but he said the reason behind it might have been psychological — that his lead shoulder was opening up early because he was subconsciously trying to put himself in position to catch a comebacker.

Kuroda overcame that issue — “If I had run away from that problem, I might not be able to play baseball at all,” he said — but he remains affected by the Ryal incident.

On a recent trip to Universal Studios in Hollywood with his wife and two daughters, Kuroda boarded the “Backdraft” ride. He didn’t board another ride.

“The explosion scared me,” he said. “I don’t know why, but it was really frightening.”

Except he did know.

Since being hit by Ryal’s line drive, loud sounds frighten him. The same is true of sights he used to consider routine, like that of a foul ball heading for the dugout. Or playing catch.

“Playing catch has become scary, especially when I’m thrown a ball that’s headed for my face,” he said. That he plays catch with Kershaw doesn’t help. “I don’t know if I’m scared because he throws so hard or because of the trauma,” Kuroda said, laughing. But these daily reminders of his mortality have made him grateful for his health, he said.

Kuroda was on the disabled list for 17 games in 2008, his first season in the majors. He was forced to go on the disabled list after starting on opening day last year, missing almost two months because of a strained side muscle. He was sidelined for three more weeks after being hit by Ryal’s line drive.

“I’m glad I’ve made it this far without getting hurt this year,” said Kuroda, whose first goal is to make it to the All-Star break without missing a start. The second, he said, is to make it through the entire season.

Manager Joe Torre looked around his office when asked about Kuroda. “I continue to look for wood to knock on,” Torre said.

“We all know how tough he is, the way he’s pitched in the playoffs and tough situations. But he has been terrific. He’s been huge. When pitching has been our question mark, he’s been the guy through this thing, he and Kershaw. The fact that he was there for us, along with Kersh, was a way we were able to tread water for a while.”

Kuroda has taken added precautions this year.

Over the winter, he received massage therapy to help recover from a herniated disk in his neck.

And on days he pitches at home, Kuroda makes a stop at the shrine he built in honor of his deceased parents. He paid a Buddhist monk to transfer the spirits of his parents from a locker-sized shrine at his home in Japan to a portable shrine he brought to the U.S.

He prays: “Let me stay healthy.”

Kuroda said he isn’t religious, but started wearing a bracelet of yellow beads on his left wrist. The bracelet was presented to him by a monk at a shrine Kuroda visited in the off-season.

“You have to do everything you can,” Kuroda said.

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