- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Pitching like a man with a million thoughts running through his head -- which, presumably, is exactly what he is these days -- Hiroki Kuroda appeared to be slightly off his game. He was doing things he normally doesn't, like walking as many batters in the fourth inning as he had walked in any of his previous six starts, and giving up a two-run homer to the opposing pitcher.
They were the kinds of things you simply can't afford when your team doesn't score for you, which the Los Angeles Dodgers once again didn't do for Kuroda, resulting in a 7-2 loss to the Washington Nationals before 39,839 on Friday night at Dodger Stadium.
Afterward, after answering all the obligatory questions about which pitches were working and which ones weren't -- Kuroda said he didn't have his slider or his splitter, his two most important weapons -- he did his best to dodge any inquiries about his status as the one player on the Dodgers' roster who is drawing heavy interest from other clubs as baseball's trading deadline draws near.
The Dodgers will want something in return for Kuroda that can help them in the future, presumably a package of promising young players or high-level prospects, but their preference is to simply keep Kuroda for the rest of the season and take their chances on possibly re-signing him in the winter. The only reason he is being shopped is as a courtesy to him, to possibly give him the chance to pitch for a contending club, instead of the Dodgers, have now scored no more than two runs in half his 20 starts.
It isn't at all clear, though, whether Kuroda even wants to go elsewhere for a chance to win. And when that question was put to him fairly directly, he answered it fairly indirectly.
"I really haven't thought about it," Kuroda said through interpreter Kenji Nimura. "I was preparing myself for today's game. Now that the game is over, I just want to relax a little bit and do some thinking. But as of this moment, I haven't really given it any thought."
According to two members of the large contingent of Japanese reporters who had interviewed Kuroda in his native language moments before American reporters got him, he didn't offer any more insight to them. The one thing he did say that was attention-grabbing was when he denied knowing anything about general manager Ned Colletti's request -- which Colletti said he made to Kuroda during a face-to-face meeting on Monday in San Francisco -- that Kuroda put together a list of the contending clubs for which he would waive his no-trade rights if Colletti could swing a deal.
A source with knowledge of the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said earlier in the day that Kuroda had declined to submit such a list and wanted to consider whether to waive his no-trade rights on a case-by-case basis.
"I myself haven't heard anything about a list," Kuroda said. "I think Ned talked with my agent, but I haven't heard anything about it. I was just really concentrating on the game I pitched. ... The only thing Ned told me in the meeting was some of the teams that were interested. If those teams actually called [proposing a deal], Ned said he would inform me."
No matter whom you believe in this matter, there is a real chance Kuroda will be headed elsewhere at some point in the coming days. And, there is a real chance he won't. The Dodgers don't really want to trade him, and Kuroda might not even really want to go. And then there is the matter of whether he will return to Japan this winter, when he is again slated for free agency, or accept another deal with the Dodgers or some other team in the U.S.
One Japanese media member I spoke with casually before the game speculated that it is "50-50" Kuroda will be pitching in his homeland in 2012.
Kuroda (6-12) actually hasn't been at the top of his game for a while now. Although his 3.19 ERA remains a strong symbol of how well he has pitched all season and how little offensive support he has received, he has given up 10 runs and 20 hits in 18 1/3 innings over his last three starts, a sign all the speculation swirling about him might be taking a toll.
"I think for individual guys, I could see it being a little bit distracting," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said, without referring specifically to Kuroda. "You have a family. You wonder what will happen if you get traded in the middle of the season. I'm sure it's something they think about. Obviously, they hear rumors and know the situation our club is in.
"I'm sure it's on their minds."
For his part, Kuroda denies it has been on his mind lately, or it has affected his performance, or he is even aware of it.
"Fortunately, I can't really read the English papers," he said.
No, but he can read the tea leaves. And he can comprehend simple logic, which is pretty much the same in any language. And right now, simple logic would suggest that if Kuroda finishes the season in a Dodgers uniform, it will only be because he chooses to.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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