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Bill Plaschke

Kuroda sends a message that is understandable in all languages

October 13, 2008|Bill Plaschke

Language barrier? What language barrier?

Today, for the first time since he arrived here last winter, I understand Hiroki Kuroda completely.

So do the Dodgers, who, on a fall evening chilled by the threat of extinction, gathered around his passion and climbed aboard his nerve.

Turns out, Kuroda not only speaks Japanese, he speaks hardball.

For more than six testy innings against the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday, he threw them with cleverness and crankiness.

Then, in a single energizing moment, he threw one with a message.

The ball sailed behind the head of the Phillies' Shane Victorino, missing the player but thumping his team and denting this series.

"It was not a message to them, it was a message to us," Dodgers catcher Russell Martin said. "We will not be pushed around."

Yeah, Kuroda said that.

Judging from the way they whined and wailed and ultimately wilted, the Phillies also understood him completely.

Restraining hitters while finally retaliating for the pitch that nearly decapitated Manny Ramirez in Game 2, the hero called "Hiro" led the Dodger to a 7-2 victory in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.

The Dodgers now trail the series by a more manageable two games to one, and the pitcher now has a new nickname.

"Kuroda is a ninja," Martin said. "Or maybe more like a samurai."

For one night in a Dodger Stadium that echoed with past October glories, he was Big D, he was Bulldog, he was everything that some other Dodgers pitchers haven't been.

From the moment the Phillies began pitching inside last week, Dodgers hitters quietly fumed that their pitchers wouldn't protect them.

"We didn't send a message," Ramirez said.

Kuroda may not speak much English, but somehow he heard.

He may be one of the quiet, forgotten members of the staff, but he had been doing this for 10 seasons in Japan, and he figured it out.

"I didn't think I could hold them down unless I worked both sides of the plate," he said through an interpreter.

Actually, in knocking a few Dodgers knees, Phillies pitchers had been using three sides -- outside, inside and broadside.

Kuroda took care of the first two areas in the first two innings.

He gave up a run on a couple of hits and benefited from five Dodger first-inning runs off how-could-they-have-run-him-out-there Jamie Moyer.

(Moyer gave up 10 earned runs in his last start here, what did Charlie Manuel think was going to happen? But we digress)

So it was the third inning, Dodgers comfortably leading, Martin had already been hit in the knee by Moyer to fuel the thing, now Kuroda smartly picks the smallest guy on the team and -- whoosh -- sails a pitch over his head.

This is not to condone pitches anywhere near the head.

"It was dangerous pitch," admitted Kuroda.

But it never really came close to hitting him, he never even left his feet, so no physical harm was done.

Yet the statement rang loud, almost as loud as Victorino's shouts to the mound of, "If you're going to hit me, hit me in the ribs, don't hit me in the head!"

Kuroda, not having a complete understanding of English, had no idea what Victorino was talking about.

But to make sure Victorino understood him, moments later Kuroda ran over to first base while Victorino was grounding out to first baseman Ryan Howard.

It was if he was saying, You got a problem with that pitch, here I am.

Victorino clearly had a problem with it, he began jawing again, the benches cleared, the Dodgers were so inspired that Manny Ramirez ran in from left field to fight everyone.

Several guys held back Ramirez, while, more impressively, the Phillies' Davey Lopes nearly became the first person in baseball history to throw out a ceremonial first pitch before a game in which he later punched somebody.

"I think they felt something had to happen, and it happened," Phillies pitcher Chad Durbin said.

Actually, nothing happened, but everything happened.

Afterward, the usually gregarious Victorino refused comment on the incident, while the homecoming Lopes also refused to talk.

Point made.

"The thing of it is, you've got to protect your players," Ramirez said.

A Dodgers pitcher has finally done that, and all is well today in a clubhouse that is once again united in its pursuit of what could be another bruised yet bold piece of Dodgers history.

"We had to change their game, change their approach," Martin said.

Thanks to Kuroda -- who has won twice in two brilliant postseason starts -- the Dodgers changed their own game, and their own approach.

"When I go on the mound, I'm a different person," he said.

"I become passionate about the game."

His teammates will step into Chavez Ravine today dripping that passion, finally taking on the favored Phillies as the aggressors, not the aggrieved.

But, Hiro, one last time, about that pitch.

"It just slipped out of my hand," he said.

No interpretation needed.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/ plaschke.

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