Dodgers press on without Kuo
Sent to the DL for anxiety disorder, the All-Star faces yet another challenge
PITTSBURGH -- The Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse didn't look or feel much different on Wednesday night than it always does after a victory. The ink still wet on a 2-0 defeat of the Pittsburgh Pirates before 12,910 at PNC Park, giving them their first two-game winning streak in almost two weeks, players cranked up the stereo, shouted above the din about the NBA playoff game showing on TV and talked to reporters, mostly about the seven shutout innings that had just been turned in by Hiroki Kuroda.
Hong-Chih Kuo, meanwhile, was a continent away, having already jetted back to Los Angeles to begin treatment for what is officially being termed an anxiety disorder. But if he was out of sight, as he apparently had been throughout the day, he certainly wasn't out of mind.
"I'm very concerned, because I talked to him a lot in the past week," Kuroda said, with Kenji Nimura interpreting. "But there are so many things that only he can understand."
There also are so many things that are being kept from the media and the public, which is understandable given the sensitive nature of the subject. Basically, though, what Kuo appears to be battling is a relapse of the psychological pitching hurdle -- "the yips," if you will -- that he dealt with two seasons ago. It wasn't obvious to the naked eye, because it wasn't like he was throwing pitches to the backstop, into the stands or, as he did the first time this problem came up in 2009, completely out of the bullpen while warming up.
But he clearly wasn't himself, as evidenced by the fact he had an 11.57 ERA in nine appearances and six walks in 4 2/3 innings. This is the same guy, after all, who struck out more than four batters for every walk last year when he became an All-Star for the first time. He was missing his spots enough that he knew it, even if the people in the upper deck couldn't see it, and he didn't know how to correct the problem.
"The main thing, I think, was him," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "As much as anything, it was just him. He didn't feel like he could do it."
Kuo conveyed that message to Mattingly after Tuesday night's game, resulting in the decision Wednesday to put him on the 15-day disabled list for the second time this year and the sixth time in his injury-plagued career. Mattingly was deliberately vague, perhaps even evasive, when asked how long he had known about the problem, saying Kuo had been talking about it for a while, especially to trainer Stan Conte.
"I didn't know what to tell him," Mattingly said of the pivotal conversation. "I just listened to him. I have so much respect for him. He is such a competitor. With everything he has been through, with the surgeries and all that stuff, it's one of those things where there is so much respect in that clubhouse for what he has done."
Conte declined to speak directly with reporters, but said through a club spokesman that he is treating Kuo like any other player on the DL and that the primary goal is to get him back as quickly as possible. There was no information forthcoming as to what the specific course of action will be other than that Kuo will avoid all baseball activity for an indeterminate period of time.
Kuroda (4-3) revealed after the game that he dealt with something similar while in high school and college in Japan, but he didn't feel comfortable using that experience to offer any sort of opinion as to how Kuo might overcome it or how long it might take.
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"I tried everything," he said. "I practiced a lot, I talked to a lot of people. But how severe the yips are really depends on the player."
Kuroda's problems are buried deep in his past now. In watching him pitch the Dodgers (18-20) to just their second shutout victory of the season and to within three games of first place in the National League West, it was hard to believe he had ever battled any sort of psychological issue on the mound. Perhaps someday, it will be just as difficult to believe that while watching Kuo pitch.
At the moment, though, considering all the unexpected speed bumps that have befallen Kuo's professional baseball career, you have to wonder whether he has one more comeback left in him. Even with his oft-surgically repaired left elbow seemingly hanging by a thread, Kuo was always fearless, bristling at times at the Dodgers' insistence on handling him with care and treating him differently from the other pitchers in their bullpen.
But this time, in a move that was as out of character for him as the wildness and the walks, Kuo actually admitted that he couldn't simply fight his way through it.
"I really don't know where it goes from here," Mattingly said. "That is kind of a medical decision. From our standpoint, we just feel for the guy. I have no understanding of it or where it goes from here."
Where the Dodgers go from here, though, is the only place they can go, which is forward. There will be concern for Kuo, and there are likely to be periodic status reports and the occasional trickle of information. But other than that, there apparently isn't much his teammates can do except get back to playing baseball.
For as long as he is gone, Kuo will be missed. But all that loud music in the clubhouse, well, it will play on.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com