- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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SAN DIEGO -- At a stage of the baseball season when practically every observation has to be qualified with the phrase "it's still early," and at a point in the year when the Los Angeles Dodgers have gone through their starting rotation exactly twice, it seems a little premature to make any sweeping, definitive statements.
That didn't stop Hiroki Kuroda from making a rather bold one on Saturday night.
So, following two of the strangest evenings of baseball in recent memory, let us make a rather bold one as well:
Kuroda is the ace of the Dodgers' staff. For now, anyway. But it's still early.
In the nightcap of a de facto doubleheader, Kuroda turned in the kind of performance the Dodgers figure to need on a fairly regular basis this season given the apparent state of their offense. The result was a 4-0 victory over the San Diego Padres to go with the 4-2, 11-inning win the Dodgers had secured earlier in the conclusion of Friday night's suspended game, all before a sellout crowd of 42,420 at Petco Park.
Perhaps more important than the details of Kuroda's masterpiece was the timing of it: Just two days into a stretch of 20 consecutive games without an off day, the Dodgers' bullpen already was shot, thanks to Mother Nature's mind games of a night earlier and the fact the resumption of that game, almost inevitably, went into extra innings.
In a rotation that is fronted by a pair of highly touted, first-round bonus babies in Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley, two guys who are just now coming into their own as major league starters, Kuroda, from the fourth spot, has maintained as low a profile as a $12 million pitcher can. That anonymity has been aided by his almost nonexistent command of the English language and his stoic countenance on the mound. But with his first two starts behind him, his numbers are impossible to overlook.
Fifteen and two-thirds innings, 12 hits, three earned runs, two walks and nine strikeouts. All good for a 2-0 record and a 1.72 ERA.
But it's still early.
How good was Kuroda against the Padres? Good enough to elicit the first chorus of boos of Don Mattingly's major league managerial career, the gaggle of Dodgers fans seated in the lower bowl behind the visiting dugout letting the rookie skipper have it when he emerged with two outs and two on in the ninth inning to take away Kuroda's chance at a coveted, complete-game shutout.
Mattingly will endure catcalls anytime if it means Kuroda keeps pitching this way.
"That was good timing, huh?" Mattingly said. "That was just what we needed. He was really sharp early. The seventh and eighth were a little bit rough, but he really wanted to go back out there [for the ninth]. We just had a number we were going to let him go to, and we weren't going to allow him to go too far. It was hard [to take him out] because you want him to do it, but you kind of balance the length of the season and where he is at. It was just his second start, so we weren't going to let him go too far."
Kuroda admitted to having lobbied hard to go back for the ninth after throwing exactly 100 pitches through eight.
"I should have listened to Don, because he pretty much told me to stop there, but I wanted to get a win by throwing nine innings,'' Kuroda said through interpreter Kenji Nimura. "I thought it would be a one-two-three inning, but I gave up some base hits, and I wasn't able to finish the game."
The Padres, whom Kuroda had held to one hit through six, had loaded the bases in the seventh and stranded a runner in scoring position in the eighth. When Brad Hawpe and Chase Headley came through with consecutive, two-out hits in the ninth, Kuroda was done.
Jonathan Broxton came on to record his second save of the day and his fifth of the season, but only after Headley was flagged for interference for the final out when he ran into Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake as Blake tried to field Cameron Maybin's bases-loaded grounder while Hawpe crossed the plate with what would have been the Padres' first run.
Blake, who rolled around in obvious pain for a few seconds but otherwise was OK, had no chance to throw Maybin out at first.
"I wouldn't have gotten him," Blake said. "I was going to barehand it, but that guy can run a little bit and I was playing on the line."
It was a bizarre ending to a bizarre couple of evenings at Petco. But when the smoke had literally cleared -- the Padres had a postgame fireworks show -- Kuroda had lent a badly needed dose of sanity to the proceedings for the second-place Dodgers (5-3), who now trail the Colorado Rockies in the National League West by just half a game.
Of course, the standings don't mean a lot right now, because, well, it's still early. But for now, for as much as it's worth in the second week of April, the Dodgers have their ace.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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