- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- After the latest in a string of masterful performances since returning from the disabled list, this one carrying the Los Angeles Dodgers to a 7-3 victory over the Florida Marlins on Tuesday, right-hander Vicente Padilla admitted that the nerve problem at the top of his right elbow was bothering him even before it landed him on the shelf April 24 and that it was a factor in the four lackluster starts he made before the injury sidelined him for almost two months.
"I wasn't throwing as hard as I normally can, and I didn't have the control I have right now," Padilla said, with Kenji Nimura translating. "So yes, it affected my game. But I don't want to make excuses. With the command I had before, I was able to win games. When your team sends you out there, you're supposed to win, no matter what."
That may be true, but it's a lot harder to win when you aren't feeling right physically. And there were hints as far back as last year, even when he was going 4-0 with a 3.20 ERA in eight appearances after the Dodgers picked him up as a late-season, free-agent acquisition, that Padilla wasn't feeling quite right.
"Even last year, you saw him doing a lot of things with his arm," said Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, referring to Padilla sitting in the dugout between innings shaking, stretching and making various other odd motions with his pitching arm. "It just got to the point [earlier this season] where he couldn't pitch through it anymore. He said he could throw his fastball but he couldn't throw any of his other pitches, his curveball or his slider."
Since his two-month layoff, which included three minor league rehabilitation starts, Padilla has been as good as at any point during his 12-year career in the majors. In pitching the second-place Dodgers (46-37) to within three games of division-leading San Diego in the National League West, Padilla turned in 6 2/3 dazzling innings, striking out nine without a walk. He didn't give up a run until the final batter he faced, ballyhooed Marlins rookie and former Notre Dame High of Sherman Oaks standout Mike Stanton, yanked a two-run homer with two outs in the seventh, cutting the Dodgers' lead to 6-2.
In four post-DL starts, Padilla (3-2) has allowed nine runs on 20 hits over 26 innings. But what really jumps out from his line during that time is this: He has struck out 25 batters while walking only three.
"I have better control than I had before I went on the DL," Padilla said. "Because of that, I feel more relaxed when I'm pitching. And when I'm pitching with a big lead like they gave me tonight, I'm able to pitch with a lot more confidence than in a tight game."
One noticeable difference since Padilla returned: much more frequent use of that big, looping "eephus" pitch -- Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully referred to it several times during the game as a "soap bubble" -- that registers in the mid-50 mph range and usually freezes hitters in their tracks. And that's if they're lucky, because if they swing at it and make contact, it usually doesn't go very far.
"It's basically a slow curve," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "It sort of catches you flat-footed. You see it and you sort of double-hitch and hit a ground ball. If somebody is throwing 93-94 and suddenly drops that in on you, you look flat-footed."
Padilla says he has always thrown the pitch on occasion but never as often as he is throwing it now. He even threw it twice in a row to Marlins left fielder Chris Coghlan with two outs and nobody on in the third inning, something Padilla said he remembered doing only once before in his career.
"When I was with Texas, I threw it twice in a row once," Padilla said. "On the second one, the hitter hit a double off me."
Not so this time. Coghlan couldn't help himself, taking a gigantic swing and grounding meekly to first to end the inning.
Mostly, though, Padilla relies on his mid-90s fastball. In fact, he relied on it almost entirely last Wednesday when he held the San Francisco Giants to a run on three hits over seven innings in a lopsided victory.
"He hardly threw any breaking balls the last four innings," Honeycutt said of that game. "He can pitch with just his fastball because he can make it sink, make it run back in on lefties or ride it up. He has excellent command."
Padilla was something of a controversial choice as the Dodgers' Opening Day starter, a decision by Torre that was seen by many fans as a concession to the fact the Dodgers didn't have a true ace. But if Padilla continues to pitch like he has since coming off the DL, he might be worthy of ace status after all.
Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp homered for the third time in the past four games and the fourth time in six games since returning to the starting lineup following his three-game benching by Torre after Kemp reportedly snapped at bench coach Bob Schaefer in the dugout during a June 26 game against the New York Yankees. Kemp is hitting .367 (11-for-30) over his past seven games, including the third game of that benching when he was forced into the lineup in the first inning by an injury to Manny Ramirez.
By the Numbers
12 -- consecutive games in which Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal has scored a run, a streak he extended when he jogged home from second on Kemp's two-run homer in the second inning. Furcal became the first Dodgers player to score in that many games in a row since the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958, surpassing the previous mark of 11 by Davey Lopes in 1979 and Shawn Green in 2002. The last Brooklyn Dodgers player to score in 12 consecutive games was Gil Hodges in 1953, and the last one to score in as many as 13 in a row was Zack Wheat, who did it in 1925.
Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda (7-6, 3.78) takes the mound for the Dodgers in the rubber game, facing the Marlins for the first time since he held them to an unearned run on five hits April 9 in Miami. That was Kuroda's first start of 2010. He will be opposed by Marlins ace Josh Johnson (8-3, 1.82), who leads the majors in ERA. Johnson got no decision April 10 against the Dodgers, when he gave up three runs on eight hits over five innings in a game the Marlins won with a three-run rally in the ninth.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com