Commentary

Kuroda's effort comes at a good time

Pitcher delivers another clutch performance for L.A. in a victory over Mets

Updated: July 23, 2010, 10:37 AM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Hiroki Kuroda gave the Los Angeles Dodgers eight shutout innings Thursday night. He gave them a much-needed victory, their second in a row, 2-0 over the New York Mets before 42,299 at Dodger Stadium. But mostly, what Kuroda gave the Dodgers was the one thing they needed most.

On the heels of Chad Billingsley's shutout of the San Francisco Giants a night earlier, Kuroda gave them almost as much length as Billingsley did. And for a beleaguered bullpen that was missing its closer due to illness and missing a couple of other guys for a couple of other reasons -- a bullpen that had lost two games and posted a collective 6.05 ERA in the first six games after the All-Star break -- nothing could have been more welcome.

Kuroda probably could have gone another inning, giving the Dodgers their first back-to-back complete games in more than a decade. But he had thrown 112 pitches already, he would have been lifted in the eighth if he hadn't retired the Mets in order, and the top of the Mets' lineup was due up in the ninth.

Hong-Chih Kuo, who had either pitched or warmed up each of the previous two days, made quick work of the Mets in the ninth. And that was the only inning pitched by a Dodgers reliever since Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeHiroki Kuroda
Harry How/Getty ImagesHiroki Kuroda gave the Dodgers their second consecutive strong effort from a starting pitcher.

That means the Dodgers are likely to go back to their preferred roster breakdown of 12 pitchers and five outfielders Friday. They had been carrying a 13th pitcher, left-handed reliever Jack Taschner, since Wednesday because the bullpen was so unsettled.

"Tomorrow or Saturday," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "Probably tomorrow."

It probably won't be Taschner who goes down simply because he was just added to the 40-man roster and doesn't have minor league options. If the Dodgers do the easy thing and send out someone who does have options, it probably will be little-used right-hander Travis Schlichting. On the other hand, with the Dodgers (51-45) having secured waivers on lefty reliever George Sherrill and Sherrill having not completely closed the door on accepting an outright assignment so he can go down and work on his mechanics, the club could decide to go that route instead if Sherrill agrees.

The most likely outfielder to be called up would seem to be Jay Gibbons, a veteran who last played in the majors with Baltimore in 2007. He is a left-handed hitter who could come off the bench for the Dodgers and is hitting .327 with 25 doubles, 17 homers, 70 RBIs and a .354 on-base percentage at Albuquerque.

Whatever happens, if the fourth-place Dodgers -- who moved to within five games of division-leading San Diego in the National League West -- get Broxton back Friday, they will have a mostly intact bullpen, even with Ronald Belisario still on the restricted list and Ramon Troncoso still in Triple-A.

As for Kuroda (8-8), he gave up five hits. Other than the fifth inning, when the Mets got runners on the corners with one out and wound up leaving the bases loaded, Kuroda never allowed a runner beyond first base. But that fifth inning might have been his finest moment.

He gave up consecutive base hits up the middle with one out to Jeff Francoeur and Chris Carter. But with the bottom of the order coming up, Kuroda worked it to perfection, getting rookie catcher Josh Thole, who came in hitting .480 in 15 games this season, to take a called third strike on a nasty breaking ball that started over the inside corner, broke at the last moment and ended up over the outside corner. With opposing pitcher Hisanori Takahashi now on deck, Kuroda intentionally walked Luis Castillo. Predictably, Takahashi grounded out weakly.

Kuroda then retired nine of the final 10 batters he faced, giving up only a bloop single to Francoeur in the seventh that second baseman Ronnie Belliard overran as he tried to make an over-the-shoulder catch in short right field.

In his past two starts, Kuroda has given up one run and nine hits over 14 innings.

Key performance

Kuo came in with the lowest career ERA against the Mets (0.35) of any active major league pitcher, according to ESPN Stats and Information. The All-Star left-hander shaved that figure a little closer (0.33) by blowing through the top of the order fairly easily in the ninth, recording his third save of the season.

Kuo began by striking out Angel Pagan. Although he then walked David Wright on four pitches, that brought up left-handed-hitting Ike Davis. Kuo threw him four consecutive fastballs, getting ahead 1-2, then dropped a slider on Davis, who swung and missed, leaving left-handed hitters a combined 0 for 32 with 17 strikeouts against Kuo this season.

Although Francoeur fouled off a couple of two-strike pitches, he eventually grounded to third, ending the game.

All the while, Broxton, the Dodgers' All-Star closer who has struggled in his past two appearances but hadn't pitched since Tuesday, was nowhere to be found.

"Broxton was sick," Torre said. "We thought when he got to the ballpark that something he ate last night just didn't agree with him. We thought he would be all right for the game, but it never got any better, so we sent him home. Hopefully, he'll be all right tomorrow."

Torre didn't reveal that to the media before the game, presumably because he didn't want to tip off the Mets.

Torre said despite Kuo's season-long dominance and Broxton's recent struggles, he isn't in any way tempted to flip his eighth-inning setup man and his closer.

"No, I like having the tandem we have right now," Torre said.

Trends

The Dodgers have been waiting most of the season for talented center fielder Matt Kemp to finally break out. Whether that happened against the Mets remains to be seen, but Kemp did drive in both of the Dodgers' runs.

The first one came in the first inning, on a two-out double that Francoeur might have had a chance to catch on the warning track if he hadn't turned the wrong way at the wall. But there was no doubting Kemp's other run-scoring hit, a solo homer to left-center leading off the seventh inning against Takahashi. That was Kemp's first home run since July 6, when he homered for the fourth time in seven games after a three-day disciplinary benching by Torre.

Kemp went 2-for-3. He is second on the team, behind first baseman James Loney, with 29 multiple-hit games, but Kemp is hitting just .264 overall.

Key moments

Dodgers catcher Russell Martin, who came in having thrown out 30.8 percent of would-be base stealers this season, threw out Wright trying to steal second to end the first inning and then cut down Jose Reyes trying to steal second for the second out in the fourth. Through the end of the fourth, Kuroda had faced the minimum 12 batters, the only two hits he gave up having been erased by those clutch throws from Martin.

"The two key outs were Russell throwing to second base in those two innings," Kuroda said. "I think that really changed the momentum."

Scene and heard

Dodgers ball boy Francisco Herrera, who was working the left-field line, made a nice grab of a tailing line drive in the ninth inning. Although Herrera got a small ovation and kudos from broadcaster Charley Steiner on the radio, that wasn't the most important part of his catch. A small child sitting in the front row was directly in the line of fire, according to one witness, and never saw the ball coming; the child might have taken the line drive in the head if Herrera hadn't snagged it. The ball boy then gave the ball to the child's father.

By the numbers

857 -- Consecutive games at Dodger Stadium without a rainout, a new ballpark record. The last rainout at Dodger Stadium happened on April 17, 2000. The previous record of 856 consecutive games was set from April 26, 1988 through April 10, 1999.

Quote of the day

"I didn't really know I was 4-0 before the game, but you should have told me that before the game. I might have pitched differently if I had known." -- Kuroda, with Kenji Nimura interpreting, when told that he was 4-0 in six career starts against Takahashi back in Japan, where Kuroda pitched for the small-market Hiroshima Toyo Carp and Takahashi pitched for the storied (and deep-pocketed) Tokyo Yomiuri Giants.

This was the sixth game in major league history pitting two starting pitchers who were born in Japan and the first since June 19, 2009, when Atlanta's Kenshin Kawakami faced Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka. This was the first such matchup involving either Kuroda or Takahashi.

Looking ahead

Friday's starters: Right-hander Vicente Padilla (4-2, 3.65) has been the Dodgers' best starting pitcher since returning from the disabled list June 19, going 3-1 with a 2.03 ERA in six starts while giving up 23 hits in 40 innings; he will be opposed by Mets lefty Johan Santana (7-5, 2.87), the two-time Cy Young Award winner who has given up only two runs in 31 innings over four starts so far this month.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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