Commentary

Kuroda shows his enormous potential

Right-hander, in the last year of his contract, has quite a start to 2010

Updated: April 10, 2010, 3:32 PM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

MIAMI -- The first two times Dodgers pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, who is from Japan, came to the plate Friday night at Sun Life Stadium, the gigantic scoreboard that towers over the upper deck in right field showed a photo, about three stories tall, of a smiling Chin-lung Hu, who is from Taiwan.

Of course, the longtime Dodgers infield prospect was nowhere in the vicinity, and in fact was hundreds of miles away playing for Triple-A Albuquerque in Oklahoma City.

By the time Kuroda came to bat a third time, in the seventh inning, the mistake had been corrected. By then, everyone in the ballpark -- but mostly the overmatched Florida Marlins -- knew exactly who this Kuroda guy was.

[+] EnlargeHiroki Kuroda
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesHiroki Kuroda became only the third pitcher in the majors in the first six days of the season to pitch at least eight innings.

In a 7-3 Dodgers victory before 40,666, Kuroda gave the Dodgers more than they needed in terms of innings and gave the Marlins more than they could handle in terms of stuff.

Kuroda went eight innings, becoming only the third pitcher to do so in the first six days of the new season. The only run he gave up was unearned, the only walk he issued was intentional, and the only thing the Marlins could do afterward was tip their caps to the man who had ruined their home opener.

"I'm not big on giving pitchers credit, but he definitely deserves credit," said Marlins left fielder Chris Coghlan, who received his 2009 National League Rookie of the Year award in a pregame ceremony. "I don't think he left any balls out over the plate in any of my four at-bats."

Kuroda made it through those eight innings on only 100 pitches, and he wouldn't have needed that many if Jorge Cantu, the last batter he faced, hadn't had a prolonged at-bat before striking out to end the eighth.

The big question for the Dodgers as far as Kuroda is concerned is whether they can keep him healthy and in the rotation, and that is a question that won't be answered for a few months. But this performance was a reminder that when he is healthy, he has the ability to dominate.

Kuroda struck out seven and induced 14 ground-ball outs, mostly by using his two-seam fastball on a night when he said his splitter wasn't working. And with the Dodgers' bullpen having already pitched 12 innings through the first three games, the most important thing Kuroda gave the team might have been those eight innings.

It wasn't the first time in Kuroda's three seasons with the Dodgers that he had shown the stuff of a potential staff ace. He was, after all, the team's Opening Day starter just a year ago, and there was a reason the Dodgers gave him $35.3 million for three years when they signed him out of Japan.

There is some question now, with Kuroda in the final year of that deal, whether he will stay in the U.S. in 2011. All indications are that he is at least weighing the option of going home. But that is a question to be resolved in its own time. The Dodgers have Kuroda for the rest of 2010, and if he continues to pitch at anything close to this level, they won't have to fret much over the absence of a true No. 1 starter.

Kuroda just might end up being that guy after all.

By the numbers

Rafael Furcal went 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles, raising his average for the season to .375. He also drew an intentional walk, his fourth walk of the season, and has an on-base percentage of .500 from the leadoff spot. This on the heels of a horribly disappointing 2009 in which Furcal hit just .269 with a .335 OBP.

Furcal struggled for most of spring training as well, but he said he started to feel comfortable and relaxed at the plate during last week's three-game exhibition series at Dodger Stadium and that he has been more or less locked in since.

Trends

One area of concern for the Dodgers is their defense. They committed two more errors, including one by third baseman Casey Blake on a fifth-inning grounder and another by catcher Russell Martin, who threw the ball away on a hurried attempt to stop Marlins speedster Cameron Maybin from beating out a bunt leading off the sixth. A missed pop fly by second baseman Blake DeWitt in shallow right field -- a ball that probably should have been caught by right fielder Reed Johnson -- was ruled a double.

In fairness to Blake, he handled six other grounders flawlessly and also made a spectacular stab of a line drive by John Baker to end the sixth with a man on second.

The Dodgers have committed seven errors in their first four games, including two each in three of them. Four errors have come at third base (two each for Blake and Ronnie Belliard), and two have been committed by Martin on bunts. DeWitt committed the other one in the 10th inning Tuesday night at Pittsburgh, a muffed grounder that ultimately led to an unearned run that cost the Dodgers the game.

Lost in the shuffle

Veteran Russ Ortiz, who is trying to revive his once-flagging career and had actually pitched well in his first two appearances for the Dodgers, didn't pitch well at all after entering this game in the ninth inning with a 7-1 lead.

He gave up a single to Dan Uggla, struck out Baker, then walked Cody Ross and Gaby Sanchez to load the bases with one out, at which point manager Joe Torre was forced to bring in his closer, Jonathan Broxton, in a non-save situation.

Ortiz, 35, was thought to be done when he was released by Houston and then never received a call-up after signing minor league deals with Colorado and the New York Yankees. Add to that the fact the Dodgers will need a couple of roster spots in the next few weeks when they activate relievers Hong-Chih Kuo from the disabled list and Ronald Belisario from the restricted list, and there would appear to be little margin for error where Ortiz is concerned.

Scene and heard

To celebrate the new season, the Marlins dressed up their current stadium with countless posters, in-progress photos and scoreboard graphics depicting their next stadium, which won't open until 2012. Even in the visiting clubhouse, there was a large mural of what a blimp shot of the new retractable-roof park will look like when it is completed on the site near downtown where the old Orange Bowl used to sit.

The stadium of many names -- it currently goes by Sun Life Stadium -- where the Marlins now play has hosted five Super Bowls (including XLIV three months ago), two World Series and the actual Orange Bowl game for most of the past two decades, but it has never really been a good fit as a big league ballpark.

Other than during their two postseason appearances, the Marlins stopped selling the upper-deck outfield seats years ago, and despite an announced crowd of 40,666 for this home opener, the upper deck from foul pole to foul pole was nothing but a sea of empty orange seats.

Even with that unusually large crowd, the place didn't feel any less empty than it does in midsummer, when crowds of less than 15,000 generally show up to brave the South Florida heat and humidity and the constant threat of rain.

Quote of the day

Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt on Kuroda's two-seam fastball, the pitch he used most of the time in dominating the Marlins for eight innings: "To me, that is his No. 1 pitch. He has a complement of other pitches, but that is always his No. 1 pitch when he is extending and driving the ball in on the hitters. When you see a lot of ground balls, that's a good sign."

Look ahead

Alleged Dodgers ace Vicente Padilla and confirmed Marlins ace Josh Johnson return to the mound Saturday night for the first time since they both were rocked on Opening Day, Padilla for seven runs in 4 1/3 innings by Pittsburgh and Johnson for four earned runs in five innings by the New York Mets. Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier is expected to be out of the lineup for a third consecutive game after turning his ankle Wednesday night against Pittsburgh.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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