- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Only a series of events that could reasonably be described as a perfect storm prevented Hiroki Kuroda from securing a place in history. But in the end, the Japanese right-hander was only too happy to settle for something that in the grand scheme of the Los Angeles Dodgers' season was far more important.
That would be a victory, 3-0 over the wild-card-leading Philadelphia Phillies before 44,896 on Monday night at Dodger Stadium.
But when the evening was over, the fact the Dodgers had taken the opener of what for the moment is their most critical three-game series of the season took a back seat to what Kuroda almost did. Because it wasn't until there was one out in the top of the eighth inning that Kuroda finally gave up a hit, a line single through the right side of the infield by Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino.
The rare and fragile nature of no-hitters notwithstanding, until that moment, there was every reason to believe Kuroda was going to finish off what would have been the first one by a Dodgers pitcher in almost 14 years.
"I thought this was finally going to be the one," said Dodgers catcher Rod Barajas, who in 12 major league seasons has never caught a no-no. "With the stuff he had, the movement, the velocity, the location of his pitches, I thought this was going to be a special night. Unfortunately for him, it didn't happen, but he still pitched an awesome game. He did exactly what we needed him to do.''
Kuroda might have had his no-hitter if not for three poorly timed occurrences.
First, Kuroda, who entered this game hitless in 43 at-bats this season and had stretched that to 0-for-45 by the fifth inning, chose the odd moment of one out in the bottom of the seventh of a no-hit bid to finally get his first hit, a solid line drive to left-center off seven-time All-Star and former Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay.
Although there was very little baserunning involved -- Kuroda barely made it halfway to second on a subsequent double-play grounder by Scott Podsednik -- he had time between innings only to jog back to the dugout, take a swig of water and head back to the mound, where his tempo slowed noticeably from the first seven innings.
He began the eighth by walking Jayson Werth.
"I was a little bit tired, because there had been a runner on base," Kuroda said through interpreter Kenji Nimura. "A very unusual runner."
Second, Raul Ibanez followed Werth's walk with what looked like a double-play grounder to short, delighting the crowd. But after Jamey Carroll fed Ryan Theriot for the force, Werth's hard slide into second forced Theriot to make a slightly high throw to first, allowing Ibanez to cross the bag safely.
Even if the Dodgers (68-64) had completed the double play, Victorino still would have come to the plate with two outs. But the situation would have been different, and with no way of knowing how Kuroda would have pitched to Victorino with nobody on base, the result might have been different too.
Third, after Werth's slide knocked Theriot off his feet, the Dodgers' second baseman stayed down long enough that manager Joe Torre and trainer Stan Conte came out to check on him. Theriot ultimately recovered enough to stay in the game, but the resulting delay might have taken Kuroda (10-11) out of his rhythm just long enough to affect his sharpness.
At any rate, Victorino quickly broke up the no-hitter on what might have been Kuroda's only bad pitch of the evening.
"It was just a mislocated pitch," Barajas said. "If it had been a sinker down and away, I don't know if he would have gotten a hit. But it caught a little too much of the plate."
After the unmistakable and inevitable sound of emotional deflation, the crowd quickly did a 180 and gave Kuroda a loud ovation.
"I know the fans wanted it, and I know my teammates wanted it," Kuroda said. "I felt I betrayed a lot of the fans and my teammates."
In truth, of course, there was no betrayal of any kind. All Kuroda did was pitch the Dodgers to within 5½ games of the Phillies in the wild-card standings and to within nine games of the division-leading San Diego Padres in the National League West, where the Dodgers remain in fourth place.
Victorino's heartbreaking hit also raised another sobering reality -- the Dodgers hadn't won the game yet. So Torre immediately shifted into chess-match mode, and after Kuroda struck out Carlos Ruiz, Torre pulled him and replaced him with Hong-Chih Kuo. Kuroda had thrown 102 pitches at that point.
"I was worried about the game at that point in time," Torre said.
Kuroda said he was fine with being lifted, especially after Kuo retired all four batters he faced to secure his seventh save.
"I wasn't disappointed at all," Kuroda said. "We aren't playing for my record. We have to win games. I think it was the best decision."
Barajas, whom the Dodgers claimed off waivers from the New York Mets a week ago, had been envisioning his first game at Dodger Stadium in a Dodgers uniform ever since he joined the club in Milwaukee on Tuesday. Barajas grew up in Norwalk and his family lives in the Southland.
But Barajas probably didn't envision this.
In addition to almost catching a no-hitter for the first time in his career, Barajas hit a home run, off Halladay no less, to lead off the fifth inning. It was a classic pull shot that landed atop the out-of-town scoreboard fronting the left-field wall.
That was in his second at-bat of the game. In his first at-bat, with runners on the corners and nobody out, Barajas grounded into a double play. But Casey Blake scored from third on the play to give the Dodgers a 2-0 lead. But what Barajas remembered later about that at-bat wasn't the result.
"I went out before the game, and it was weird," said Barajas, who dreamed of playing for the Dodgers while attending games at Chavez Ravine during his youth. "I had some butterflies. Then in my first at-bat, my hands were shaking. I stepped out of the box and was like, 'Come on, you have done this before.' I just needed to get that first at-bat out of the way. By my second at-bat, it was all about baseball."
When Barajas finished speaking with reporters, he spotted his father, who had been escorted into the clubhouse by a security guard, standing a few feet away. The two shared a warm embrace and had a brief conversation in Spanish. At that moment, Barajas, who will turn 35 next week, could have been forgiven if he suddenly felt like a kid again.
In what probably will be his only minor league rehabilitation appearance, Dodgers right-hander Vicente Padilla pitched three shutout innings, giving up two hits, for advanced Single-A Inland Empire against Bakersfield. Seven of the nine outs he recorded came on ground balls, and another hitter reached on an error on a ground ball. Padilla has been on the 15-day disabled list since Aug. 20 because of a bulging disc in his neck and tentatively is slated to be activated and start for the Dodgers on Monday night at San Diego.
Quote of the day
"You never know what is going to happen in this game or when you might get traded. All you can do is keep playing baseball and not think about those things. It's sad when it happens to a good friend, but this is a business. He will still by my friend no matter where he's at." -- Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal, who was one of Manny Ramirez's closest friends on the team. Ramirez was claimed off waivers by the Chicago White Sox on Monday, officially ending his memorable and at times controversial tenure with the Dodgers.
Dodgers rookie right-hander Carlos Monasterios (3-4, 3.54) will make what probably is his final start before returning to the bullpen to make room in the rotation for Padilla. Phillies right-hander Kyle Kendrick (8-7, 4.64) has given up 12 earned runs in 8½ innings in his two previous career starts at Dodger Stadium, and the Dodgers ignited him for six runs in 3⅓ innings on Aug. 10 at Citizens Bank Park.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.