- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- It was only fitting that on Taiwan Day at Dodger Stadium -- an event for which Internet singing sensation Lin Yu-Chun was flown all the way from his native country to belt out the national anthem, God Bless America and, of course, Taiwan Will Touch Your Heart -- Dodgers reliever Hong-Chih Kuo and Detroit reliever Fu-Te Ni both managed to get into the game Saturday.
It was purely coincidental, however, that on an afternoon when the Dodgers had no shortage of heroes in a 6-4 victory over the Tigers before 45,117, Kuo was one of the biggest.
This time, the left-hander and frequent surgical patient came on to relieve rookie John Ely after Ely's latest strike-throwing masterpiece. Ely's exit came after he gave up a leadoff infield single in the seventh, a point at which the Dodgers led 6-2. Kuo immediately got the first two hitters he faced, the newly promoted Ryan Raburn and grizzly veteran Johnny Damon, to hit the ball in the air for easy outs.
But when third baseman Casey Blake booted a tough-hop grounder from Ramon Santiago, Kuo followed by walking Magglio Ordonez. That brought the most dangerous hitter in the Tigers' lineup, first baseman Miguel Cabrera, to the plate with two men on. After Cabrera fouled off a first-pitch slider, Kuo came back with another one. This time, Cabrera hit a topper halfway between the mound and the third-base line, and Kuo sprinted off the mound to get it.
He then threw what might have been his hardest pitch of the day, a bullet to first baseman James Loney to get Cabrera by a hair. The usually laconic Kuo pumped his fist before heading to the dugout, his 10th consecutive scoreless appearance in the books.
With that, Kuo reduced his ERA to 1.93 in 11 appearances since being activated from the disabled list for the first time this season April 22. He has allowed just one of four inherited runners to score, and he has retired the first batter faced nine times. And he has given up just three hits in 9 1/3 innings, holding opposing batters to a .107 average.
More importantly, his left arm is still attached his body -- which, considering Kuo's surgical history, is a small victory unto itself.
"He is healthy,'' Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "When he feels good, there aren't too many who are better.''
The key for Kuo is to continue to feel good. At 28, he is basically trying to wring every day in the major leagues that he possibly can out of his elbow, which underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery twice before he ever got to the big leagues for the first time in 2005. But if there is always a chance he could blow it out again any time he takes the mound, well, neither he nor anyone else in the Dodgers organization spends much time worrying about it.
"You can't think like that,'' Honeycutt said. "I feel good whenever he is out there. Right now, obviously, he feels good. We have held off going back-to-back [days] with him. We ask him all the time, and he always says, 'I'm good, I'm good, I'm good.' He knows himself very well, and I think he is at the point where he knows he has to be honest about it.''
If the Dodgers remain in contention for the entire season, they undoubtedly will need Kuo on consecutive days at some point, a hurdle he has yet to cross this season. But he was allowed, on May 14 at San Diego, to record the final out in one inning and then pitch all of the next one, something that for him qualifies as a calculated risk.
Because he has never been the Dodgers' closer and has been their eighth-inning setup man only in spurts, Kuo has never gotten a lot of attention. But he got a lot of it Saturday, and he probably would have gotten it even if he hadn't pitched. There were about two dozen Taiwanese reporters on hand to cover Taiwan Day, and most of them bunched around Kuo's locker after the game, giving him the star treatment if only for a few minutes.
Later, when a couple of American reporters walked up and asked if it was especially important to him to get into the game on Taiwan Day, Kuo did what Kuo does, which is to say he shrugged it off.
"I didn't think much about it,'' he said. "I just get ready to play every day. If they need me, I need to make sure I'm ready, and that is what I have been doing.''
It would appear that Andre Ethier's effort to get healthy enough to return to the Dodgers' lineup is moving along more quickly than anyone had hoped. For that, the Dodgers can thank Gary Vitti, the head trainer for the Lakers.
Ethier suffered a small fracture in the first knuckle of his right little finger May 15. By the following morning, Dodgers trainer Stan Conte put in a call to Vitti because he knew some of the Lakers players had dealt with similar injuries.
"This was the day before their playoff game,'' Conte said. "But he called right back and couldn't have been nicer.''
Vitti recommended a special splint that immobilizes the first knuckle but leaves the second knuckle flexible. What that does is allow Ethier to swing a bat more-or-less unfettered, which he has been doing in the indoor batting cages. Conte said Ethier already has progressed from hitting off a tee to hitting soft-toss pitches and even catching a ball because the split also allows him to squeeze his glove.
The knuckle that is broken has to be immobilized in order to heal. However, because of the splint, that knuckle can be immobilized without immobilizing the entire finger. That means the fracture doesn't have to heal completely in order for Ethier to get back on the field. Conte said that when Ethier does return, he will play while wearing the splint, which he will wear constantly until the fracture heals.
This is a major step forward that conceivably could allow Ethier to return from the disabled list as soon as he becomes eligible to do so May 30 at Colorado. And while Conte wouldn't go so far as to predict that, he did concede that the process is moving much more quickly than it would have without the splint.
Although Blake's box-score line was impressive -- he went 3-for-4 with a home run, extending what is now a 10-for-19, three-homer surge since the slumping Blake was given the day off Sunday at San Diego -- his biggest contribution to Saturday's win came at third base, and it came in a frenetic ninth inning.
With closer Jonathan Broxton clearly struggling to close out his third save opportunity in less than 48 hours -- Damon and Ramon Santiago had begun the inning with consecutive singles, bringing the potential tying run to the plate with the heart of the Tigers' order coming up -- Cabrera yanked a pitch toward the hole between third and short. But Blake quickly closed off that hole, diving to his left to field it on one hop. He then threw to second from his knees, just getting Santiago for the second out of the inning.
The play loomed even larger when Brennan Boesch followed with a ground-rule double that cut the Dodgers' lead to 6-4 and put the tying runs into scoring position before Broxton got Brandon Inge on a called third strike to end the game.
"You really don't put a whole lot of thought into it,'' Blake said. "I saw the ball coming, and it wasn't really easy to see right there [with the early-evening shadows]. I knew [Santiago] could run a little bit, but I went to second, and we just got him.''
Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda (5-1, 2.87) will start Sunday's series finale for the Dodgers against Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello (3-4, 5.93), whose inflated ERA is mostly the result of a string of bad starts in late April and who has allowed just four runs on 12 hits over 14 innings in his past two starts. The Dodgers are 7-1 this season when Kuroda pitches.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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