SAPPORO – Hiroshima Carp right-hander Hiroki Kuroda gave a phenomenal performance in what could be the final outing of his storied professional career in Tuesday’s Game 3 of the Japan Series against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters at Sapporo Dome.
The 41-year-old went 5⅔ innings, allowing four hits and one run in 85 pitches in Hiroshima’s 4-3 loss to the Fighters, with fans clad in red replica Carp jerseys and caps flying miles from their Hiroshima homes to support him.
Kuroda said afterward that it was just like any other game he pitched in his 20-year career, insisting that he has always played “as if it’s my last game.”
At the end of the day for Kuroda, it doesn’t mean anything if his team doesn’t post a win.
“I think I did my job, but I feel disappointed that we came up short,” said Kuroda, who pitched for Hiroshima for 13 years and seven for the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees. “However well you perform, it doesn’t matter if your team doesn’t get a win. It’s all about the team.”
Carp first-year reliever Jay Jackson said that Kuroda’s attitude has been “exactly the same” since he announced last week that he will retire at the end of the Japan Series.
“I think he kind of went into this year knowing what his plan was going to be,” the American right-hander said before Game 3. “Just the way this year has ended (reaching the Japan Series), and you can’t go out on a better note than this. He’s a professional. He’s kept the same mindset, same demeanor all year, no matter what. That’s been one of the big keys to our team, having him being a steady force.”
While Kuroda claimed that Tuesday’s game was just another game, it wasn’t that way for the Carp and Kuroda’s fans. According to reports, TV ratings in Hiroshima averaged 59.6 percent (It was 17.5 even in the Kanto area). The average ratings for the first two games at Mazda Stadium made it just north of 50, but Kuroda’s potential final start helped boost it to near 60.
Kuroda is a calm, humble player and not a man of many words, which creates an aura that his fans embrace. But his teammates appreciate what he has brought to the team, which this season captured its first pennant in a quarter of a century.
Jackson said that the Osaka native is “the heart and soul” of the team and has brought so much positivity.
“You’ve never seen him down. He’s always just happy,” Jackson said of Kuroda before Game 3. “That helps the vibe of the team a lot. I like to be as positive and as happy as I can. But having him be that positive and happy all the time, it rubs off a lot more than just me being happy and positive. He’s literally been the key to this team, I would say.”
Meanwhile, Kuroda, a career 203-win pitcher between Japan and the majors, has inspired other clubs, not just his own.
The Fighters’ Shohei Otani, NPB’s latest superstar who is 19 years younger than Kuroda, came up with a pair of doubles off Kuroda and was the last Fighters hitter he faced before the hurler left the hill with a leg injury in Game 3.
Otani, a two-way player, said that he cherished the opportunity to learn from the outgoing Kuroda at the plate.
“(Kuroda) threw almost all the pitches in his arsenal at me,” Otani said after the game, hinting that Kuroda tried to give the fourth-year player some lessons in how to represent Japanese baseball. “And how he took moments on the mound and the track of his pitches were things I studied from him at the plate.”
Nippon Ham skipper Hideki Kuriyama said: “I felt a lot of spirit (from Kuroda). He certainly has ability and skills but you can’t describe him in just those terms. He has a special quality that’s intangible.”
Whether Kuroda, who had a 10-8 record with a 3.09 ERA this year, is completely finished or not will depend on how the Series plays out, and he may still have a chance to still pitch as a reliever.
“I’m here to help the team,” Kuroda said. “And if I face just one guy and if that helps the team, I’ll be glad to do that.”
Staff writer Jason Coskrey contributed to this story.