Hiroki Kuroda's return still uncertain
If pitcher knows whether he's coming back to the Dodgers or not, he's not hinting
PHOENIX -- Three hours before game time, Hiroki Kuroda sat in the makeshift video room, which consisted of a few tables strategically arranged in the middle of the visiting clubhouse. He was alone, looking intently at a laptop, at the Arizona Diamondbacks' hitters he would be facing a little later.
This wasn't the time for sentiment or reflection. This was business as usual. This was Kuroda's routine, the same one he had gone through so many times over the last four years, and even if he was about to pitch the penultimate game of the Los Angeles Dodgers' season at a time when there suddenly is a last-week-of-school feel to these proceedings, he wasn't about to change it now.
Even if he would never do any of this again, at least not in a Dodgers uniform.
We won't know for a while now whether we were watching Kuroda pitch for the last time on American soil. He says even he doesn't know, and so we believe him for now because we really have no way of proving otherwise. What we do know is that if this was, in fact, his farewell, he gave us the best he had, and we really shouldn't have been at all surprised by the result.
Six shutout innings in which he gave up five hits and struck out five batters without a walk. Little in the way of run support. A razor-thin lead the bullpen allowed to get away. And, like so many other occasions this year, something other than a victory.
This time, it was a no-decision -- the Dodgers ultimately took a kick-to-the-stomach, 7-6 loss to the National League West champion Diamondbacks before 25,669 at Chase Field after Blake Hawksworth and Javy Guerra conspired to cough up a five-run lead in the bottom of the 10th inning -- leaving Kuroda with a 13-16 mark to go with a sterling 3.07 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 3-to-1 in possibly his final season in the U.S., four years after leaving the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.
There is widespread speculation now, and there has been really all season, that Kuroda is about to return home and rejoin the Carp for the final years of his career, however many there may be now that his 37th birthday looms this winter.
Kuroda insists he has made no such decision, and that he won't make it any time soon.
"I would just like to savor this moment," he said, with Kenji Nimura interpreting. "Before I started this season, I wanted to stay healthy the entire year and keep my [spot in the] rotation, so there is a sense of fulfillment. ... So right now, I don't want to think about next season."
Kuroda also declined to say how long he figures he will take the make his decision, which will have a major impact on how the Dodgers approach their winter maneuverings for next season. His potential departure would leave a gaping hole in their rotation, especially in a winter when the list of free-agent starting pitchers will be extremely thin. He is good, he is consistent, and he is durable, having just topped the 200-innings mark for the first time to max out his bonuses and give himself a $12.5 million salary for this season. And although he did three stints on the disabled list in his first two years -- one of them after he got hit in the head by a line drive -- he hasn't been back on it since.
"No question," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "It would be something where you would have to find a guy, somebody who would be able to do what he does. That would be somebody who takes the ball and keeps you in games. He knows what he is doing, and he has been good for this team. Different guys watch what he does and the way he works. Obviously, the language barrier keeps him from being able to relate verbally, but his work ethic and the way he goes about his business is something our other guys see and learn from."
General manager Ned Colletti has let Kuroda know he wants him back, and he plans to let him know again Wednesday, before the Dodgers play their season finale. Colletti said he won't assume Kuroda isn't coming back "until we know that he isn't."
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There is one scenario that is possible but not necessarily conceivable -- free agency could take Kuroda to another major league team. There were a handful of teams in on him when he initially signed with the Dodgers, but when he re-signed last winter, there weren't. And even if other teams have interest this offseason, the only competition the Dodgers (81-79) will have for Kuroda's services are the Carp. And that competition will be decided by no other factor than Kuroda's whim, because the small-market Carp aren't in a position to offer him anything close to what the Dodgers undoubtedly will.
Based on two casual conversations I had with two Japanese reporter friends this week, it sounds as if the Carp probably can't give him more than the equivalent of $2 million to $3 million.
Kuroda did tell an assemblage of Japanese reporters after the game -- he speaks with them separately because he uses Nimura for his U.S. media interviews -- that in addition to Colletti, several teammates have encouraged him to stay.
We probably can assume this: The Dodgers, who have about $45 million to $50 million coming off the books this winter, will offer Kuroda at least what they gave him a year ago, a one-year deal with a $12 million base. And consider that by almost any measure -- other than won-lost record, which in many ways is beyond a pitcher's control -- he has had an outstanding season, easily his best in the majors. His age notwithstanding, if it is his desire to finish his career with the Carp, there wouldn't seem to be an overwhelming sense of urgency.
It is perfectly conceivable that Kuroda could spend another year with the Dodgers, a team that figures to be much better in 2012 than it was in 2011, and then return to Hiroshima at a point when he still has plenty left in his arm and his body to make a good showing and give the home folks a compelling encore.
Whether he is considering any of that in his decision-making process is something only Kuroda knows. Whether that process has even begun, well, ditto. The rest of us, and most notably Colletti and Mattingly, will simply have to wait.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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