- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Sitting at his corner locker in a clubhouse filled with uncertainty, Hiroki Kuroda made sure he fit right in. Asked what his career plans are beyond the end of this season, the Los Angeles Dodgers' right-hander didn't really have an answer.
"That is something I will think about after the season," Kuroda said through interpreter Kenji Nimura. "Right now, I'm only thinking about my next start. Anything can happen during the season, so I really don't want to think about the future. I could break my arm in my next start, so all I can do is concentrate and prepare for my next start."
Six days after a masterful victory over the Philadelphia Phillies in which he flirted with a no-hitter, Kuroda came out on the wrong end of a 3-0 loss to the San Francisco Giants before 43,758 on Sunday night at Dodger Stadium.
He pitched eight strong innings, giving up six hits and striking out eight batters, and he had made only one bad pitch that cost him, a hanging breaking ball that Giants infielder Juan Uribe launched into the left-field seats in the seventh inning that stuck the punchless Dodgers with what for them proved an insurmountable three-run deficit.
It was the 15th time this season the Dodgers had been shut out, this time on three hits by Giants lefty Jonathan Sanchez and two relievers, and half of Kuroda's 12 losses were among those 15 games. So if Kuroda is tired of what he has to put up with around here, well, no one can really blame him if he bolts next month, either for greener free-agent pastures somewhere else in the major leagues or for his native Japan.
"It always helps to have some kind of run support," Kuroda said. "But whatever the situation is, I have to do my job. With or without run support, my job is to win the game."
But almost in the same breath, Kuroda admitted the fact he always seems to be pitching with no margin for error, no luxury of leaving an occasional breaking ball up in the strike zone, has taken a toll on him mentally.
"It's always frustrating," he said. "You always want to win. If you have numbers in the win column that always helps. It motivates you to keep going. But since that isn't the case this year, yeah, it's a little bit frustrating."
Kuroda (10-12) has a 3.39 ERA. All five of the Dodgers' current starters, for that matter, have ERAs under 4.00, so Kuroda is far from alone in his frustration. The simple fact is, this is a difficult team to pitch for. If it isn't the offense failing to provide run support, it is the bullpen blowing late-inning leads. It is for those reasons that the Dodgers' starting pitchers are a combined 49-52 this season despite a collective ERA of 3.88.
It is also for those reasons the Dodgers (69-68) will do well to even finish with a winning record after reaching the second round of the playoffs each of the past two seasons. Still mired in fourth place in the National League West, the Dodgers remain eight games behind the division-leading San Diego Padres, who have lost 10 in a row and who host the Dodgers in a three-game series beginning Monday night.
Normally, a player completing his third season in the majors becomes eligible for arbitration for the first time but remains under full control of his current club for three more years. Wisely, when Kuroda came to town after 11 seasons with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp just before the 2008 season, he had it written into his three-year, $35.3 million contract that the rule wouldn't apply to him and that he would be eligible for free agency immediately upon the expiration of the contract.
Kuroda is now 27-29 over the life of that contract despite a career ERA of 3.61. In theory, the Dodgers would like to have him back. But he will turn 36 just before spring training, and given the club's current financial situation, it is difficult to imagine the Dodgers giving him anything close to the $14.1 million he is getting this year.
If nothing changes, Kuroda will make five more starts for the Dodgers this season, including in their Oct. 3 finale against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Whether those are his final starts in a Dodgers uniform, or even his final starts on American soil, is something Kuroda claims even he can't predict. But if his teammates really want him back, maybe a little run support the rest of the way would provide them with a valuable selling point.
Although the Dodgers' parting with outfielder Manny Ramirez last week was timely, and perhaps even overdue -- general manager Ned Colletti was quoted as saying that the time had come for both parties to go their separate ways -- the undeniable fact that couldn't be obscured was that the Dodgers' offense has struggled all season whenever Ramirez wasn't in the middle of it.
Six games into the post-Manny era, that hasn't really changed much.
"We haven't been hitting with any regularity," said manager Joe Torre, speaking more of the season as a whole than the six games since Ramirez went to the Chicago White Sox on a waiver claim. "I certainly don't take anything away from Sanchez, because he was really good, but we certainly are capable of doing better and being more consistent offensively. We just haven't done it."
The Dodgers are averaging 2.7 runs a game since Ramirez's departure.
The most glaring part of the batting order is the middle, where No. 3 hitter Andre Ethier is 4-for-23, with three of those hits of the infield variety, with six strikeouts in those six games. Matt Kemp, who has batted cleanup since Ramirez left, is 3-for-18 with seven strikeouts.
"That has been an issue for us, and it has been something we have talked about before, the fact we have been very inconsistent in the middle of our batting order," Torre said. "The energy we have had really has been at the top of the order, but we haven't been able to do anything with those guys on base."
The Dodgers, who went to San Diego on July 27 looking to make a strong statement in the NL West, will go back there this week basically looking to play spoiler in a race that doesn't really involve them anymore.
Right-hander Vicente Padilla (6-4, 3.96) will look to extend the Padres' losing streak to 11 games when he takes the mound in a major league game for the first time since going on the disabled list Aug. 20 because of a bulging nerve in his neck. He will be opposed by Mat Latos (13-5, 2.25), the Padres' season-long ace. In his past two starts, Latos has given up two runs and nine hits over 13 innings, striking out 16 and walking three, but he got no decision in either of those games, and the Padres lost both of them, scoring two runs in each one.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.