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Thursday, September 23, 2010
Updated: September 24, 3:13 AM ET
Questioning Kuroda's return

By Tony Jackson
ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Apparently, it will be a while before Hiroki Kuroda's immediate future comes into focus. The Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander continues to insist -- and insisted again after Thursday night's game, a 3-1 victory over the San Diego Padres before 33,040 at Dodger Stadium that knocked the Padres out of the National League West lead -- that he hasn't decided what he wants to do.

But if Kuroda is down to his final handful of starts in the U.S., he appears to be determined to go out on a strong note.

After a brief struggle in the first inning, Kuroda settled into the sort of groove that has almost become commonplace whenever he starts for the Dodgers these days. He faced one batter over the minimum from the second through the eighth, then took a seat to watch Hong-Chih Kuo close it out with three consecutive strikeouts in the ninth for his 10th save.

Hiroki Kuroda
Dodgers pitcher Hiroki Kuroda is a free agent at the end of the season and could opt to return to Japan.

Although Kuroda didn't get much relief from that lack of run support that has recently plagued him -- and, for that matter, every other Dodgers starter -- it didn't really matter this time, as he held the Padres to that lone, first-inning run and five hits.

Kuroda (11-13) shaved his second-half ERA to 2.57. He also ran his innings-pitched total to 190 with two starts left, including the season finale on Oct. 3 against the Arizona Diamondbacks. That gives him a nearly inevitable shot at reaching 200 for the first time in his three major league seasons -- although Kuroda says that number itself isn't as important to him as what it represents.

"At this moment, [200 innings] isn't a big deal," Kuroda said, with Kenji Nimura translating. "Getting through the season without an injury is a bigger accomplishment."

Kuroda was on the disabled list a total of three times in his first two seasons, including once after taking a line drive off the right side of his head that hit so hard it caromed all the way into the front row of the stands. This year, he not only has avoided the DL, but he hasn't missed so much as a start.

And this time, on an evening when the fourth-place Dodgers (74-79) had gotten into the habit of helping their opponents vault into the division lead, they actually knocked the Padres out of it, dropping them a half-game behind the San Francisco Giants. The third-place Colorado Rockies, who have lost four in a row, fell 3 1/2 back, and the mathematically eliminated Dodgers trail by 12.

So with no playoff race with which to concern themselves, the Dodgers can focus on their various storylines, with one of the biggest of those being the question of whether they want to try to re-sign Kuroda and whether Kuroda even wants to be re-signed or stay in the U.S.

The Dodgers signed him as a free agent before the 2008 season, after he had spent 11 seasons with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp and become a star-caliber pitcher. They gave him a three-year, $35.3 million deal. But the fact Kuroda specifically wanted a clause in that contract allowing him to become a free agent upon its expiration -- Japanese imports, regardless of age or experience, generally fall under the same rules as any other rookie and aren't eligible for free agency until after their sixth season in the majors -- was a clear indication that Kuroda wasn't exactly jumping in with both feet.

Some of the Japanese reporters who regularly cover the Dodgers strongly suspect Kuroda will go home, although he apparently hasn't told any of them of his plans, either. His other two options are to re-sign with the Dodgers or sign with another team in the U.S. Asked after the game if retirement is even on his radar, Kuroda laughed and said it absolutely wasn't.

And then, he seemed to indicate he won't make a decision -- or at least he won't make his decision public -- until after the season.

"I can't really multitask," Kuroda said. "I can't really think about that and still pitch. I want to finish the season first and then think about next season."

Kuroda is one of three potential free agents in the Dodgers' starting rotation, along with Ted Lilly and Vicente Padilla, meaning the only locks to return next season are Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley. Given the way Lilly has pitched (at least in the beginning) since the Dodgers acquired him at the trading deadline, Kuroda isn't likely to be the club's top priority among those three.

Even if Kuroda does decide it's time for him to say sayonara, he at least is leaving Dodgers fans with a few final memories. He is now 28-30 with a 3.56 ERA, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 3:1 and sizable contributions to a couple of division titles and NL Championship Series appearances since coming to town. By today's baseball economic standards, that passes for a pretty solid investment.

Where it goes from here is anyone's guess at this point -- including, apparently, Kuroda's.

Scene and Heard

Legendary country musician and former Hee Haw host Roy Clark came out of the stands and belted out a stirring rendition of "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch, for which he received a rousing ovation. But the highlight of the evening might have come a few innings earlier, when an ancient Hee Haw clip was shown on the DodgerVision board of then-manager Tommy Lasorda, clad in the classic Hee Haw attire of overalls and a plaid shirt, sang some song about Dodger Blue while Clark and another cast member played guitars and sang along.

After the clip was shown, Lasorda got up from his seat in owner Frank McCourt's box and walked near to where Clark was seated in the premium seats behind the Dodgers dugout, and the two had a brief conversation.

Minor Matter

Jamie Hoffmann, an outfielder who logged some big league time last season but no longer is on the 40-man roster, has been named to the 24-man roster for USA Baseball's Pan American qualifying team, which is made up of minor leaguers not on 40-man rosters. The team will participate in the COPABE Pan American/World Cup qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico on Oct 1-10.

The U.S. team will report to Cary, N.C., on Friday to begin pre-tournament workouts.

Hoffmann had a solid season for the Dodgers' Triple-A Albuquerque affiliate, hitting .310 with 36 doubles, eight homers, 74 RBIs, 17 steals and a .369 on-base percentage.

Quote of the Day

"I don't know. I think he has had some fun here. It takes a little time. There is a lot of stress when you're coming to a new league to begin with, but also coming to a new country. Whatever he does, he doesn't reveal much. He is pretty professional and pretty closed-mouthed. I hope he does [stay], because I think he would be an asset to a big league club." -- Dodgers manager Joe Torre, when asked whether he believes Kuroda, a potential free agent after the season, will remain in the major leagues or return to his native Japan.

Looking Ahead

The Dodgers kick off their final road trip of the season with a three-game series at Arizona starting on Friday night. Kershaw (12-10, 2.98) was moved up one day in the rotation in order to line him up to pitch the finale of next week's series at Colorado because the Rockies are still in contention. For his career, he is averaging 11 strikeouts per nine innings when facing the Diamondbacks. Arizona rookie right-hander Barry Enright (6-5, 3.87), a former Pepperdine University standout, didn't allow more than three runs in any of his first 12 starts, joining former Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb as the only pitchers in Diamondbacks history to accomplish that, but he has allowed at least five runs in each of his three subsequent starts.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.