Dodgers get a ground-ball machine in Kuroda

TOKYO -- With the acquisition of Hiroki Kuroda, the Los Angeles Dodgers have purchased a gem. The 32-year-old right-hander is a real no-nonsense player with a top-notch track record.

"He's got a good fastball and three or four above-average pitches that he can throw in the zone," said Marty Brown, who managed Kuroda the past two seasons with the Hiroshima Carp.

Kuroda, who has a 3.69 career ERA and 103-89 record, did more to help his team win from 2002 to 2007 than any other pitcher in Japan. The only player who contributed as much to his team's success per season over that period was current Red Sox right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Although the newest Dodger is best known for his ability to get ground balls, Brown says what's special is Kuroda's knack for stepping up late in the game.

"He's similar to Pedro Martinez in that respect," Brown said by telephone last week. "They are different kinds of pitchers, but they both have that ability.

"He [Kuroda] will be in the sixth or seventh inning, sailing along, and he gets into a little trouble. Suddenly he grabs another gear. He has that competitive nature. We've all seen Pedro do that for so many years."

Yet, as with most ace pitchers, there is always the fear that mammoth pitch counts in games, between games and in the preseason will bring Kuroda down to earth sooner or later. When Brown arrived to take over his former club in 2006, he began putting his 6-foot-1, 190-pound ace on a pitch count, while shifting him as much as possible to four days' rest instead of six.

The new skipper also patched Hiroshima's porous defense, and despite a season that was punctuated by an elbow injury, Kuroda posted one of the nation's most impressive starting pitching seasons in nearly 20 years. In 2006, he rang up a 1.85 ERA despite working in a hitters' league and in Japan's toughest park for pitchers.

"I think Kuroda will be someone's No. 3 starter and will get just as many [ground balls] here as he did there," new Kansas City Royals manager Trey Hillman said last Wednesday in an e-mail. "He pitched and was successful in one of the smallest parks in Japan, and I also think he is a workhorse that will continue to eat up innings here in the States."

Kuroda was eligible to file for free agency a year ago, but between elbow surgery in the United States in November 2006 and his father's failing health, the right-hander opted to remain in Hiroshima for another year.

He was on track for another superb season in 2007 until it unraveled at the very end of July. From July 31 on, his ERA jumped by a run and a half to 4.58.

Brown believes his righty was looking away from the small-market Carp, who had finished in the bottom of the Central League for 10 straight seasons.

"There were some promises made to him [Kuroda], about what the team would do to keep him, and most of those did not materialize," Brown said. "We were going to be more competitive, and then there was all the focus on [Tomonori] Maeda."

Since filing for free agency in November, Kuroda's focus has all been on pitching in the majors.

He seems a good match for Dodger Stadium because he doesn't give up many home runs or walks. Growing up in a park where you have to pitch inside, Kuroda locates his fastball well to both sides of the plate. Although he depends on a two-seamer and his breaking pitches to feed his infielders' assist totals, his location allows him to get strikeouts when necessary.

While he will certainly need to adjust to more different situations than he faced in Japan, Kuroda has all the tools he needs to succeed and is unafraid to use them.

"He has a way of leaving everything on the field," Brown said.

Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.