It took the Hiroshima Carp winning their first Central League pennant in 25 years to get veteran pitcher Hiroki Kuroda to drop his steely public facade. Kuroda, so business-like and methodical on the mound, couldn’t hold back the tears on Saturday night after the Carp defeated the Yomiuri Giants to clinch the seventh CL title in franchise history.
He shared a long embrace with fellow veteran Takahiro Arai as the team celebrated around them. After Carp manager Koichi Ogata was tossed in the air seven times during the traditional doage celebration, the Carp players, all of them younger than the 41-year-old Kuroda, grabbed the grizzled veteran and sent him airborne five times.
It was the type of night Kuroda had hoped to help bring to the franchise when he turned down the chance to remain in the major leagues, and the promise of a higher salary, to return to Hiroshima in 2015.
“To me, it was worth it,” Kuroda said after the team clinched the CL title. “We won the championship. There’s really nothing else to say, but I’m happy to have come back to this team.”
The Carp have been pretty pleased with the decision themselves.
“He’s the world to this team,” said reliever Jay Jackson.
Kuroda hasn’t exactly been on a farewell tour since returning to Japan either. The right-hander has been a steady contributor on the mound. He was 11-8 with a 2.55 ERA in 169 2/3 innings in 2015. He’s gone 9-8 with 3.17 ERA over 144⅔ innings in 23 starts this season, which included his milestone 200th career win (combined between MLB and NPB), and Saturday’s pennant-clinching victory, during which he threw six innings and earned the win.
“Playing the last two years with him has been a learning experience and also a humbling experience,” said Carp pitcher Kris Johnson. “A guy of that age, who still has this much fun playing baseball is something to behold and something to take note of.
“Because this game is going to come to an end for you eventually. That’s our worst enemy, time. He just comes down, he has a lot of fun every day whether it’s a good game, a bad game or just practice, Kuroda always has a smile on his face and his work ethic shows. Just taking note of that, I think that’s the biggest thing any of these young pitchers can take from him.”
Kuroda is a beloved figure in Hiroshima. The team selected him with its second pick in the 1996 amateur draft. As he gradually grew into a star, Kuroda was one of the few bright spots during a stretch of difficult seasons for the club, especially in the years after star player Tomoaki Kanemoto left to join the Hanshin Tigers as a free agent in 2003, and Arai did the same in 2008.
Kuroda remained with the Carp through the 2007 season, after which he left to embark on an MLB career. He spent seven years in the majors with the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees, going 79-79 with a 3.45 ERA. He got a taste of team success in the majors, helping the Dodgers to NL West division titles in 2008 and 2009.
The Yankees, among other MLB clubs, had hoped to sign him for 2015, but Kuroda opted for a return to Japan, which became major news in his home country. His return coincided with that of Arai, who had been with the Tigers from 2008-2014.
“Arai and I have been talking about wanting to make this team competitive again, and we finally made it,” Kuroda said.
Like Kuroda, Arai has been a major piece in the Carp’s revival. The 39-year-old has played 105 games this season and is hitting .304 with 18 home runs and 98 RBIs.
“After the two of them came back, we just followed their lead,” said catcher Yoshiyuki Ishihara. “Arai and Kuroda came back, and it feels great to have won it with this team.”
Now in his 20th professional season, the stage is set for Kuroda, who pondered retirement after 2015, to ride off into the sunset.
“He’s done so much in his career and to be doing what he does still is pretty incredible to watch,” said pitcher Bradin Hagens. “A guy like him, who is out there every day working just as hard as probably when he started playing, it’s inspiring. It’s something you just don’t see every day.
“He’s a guy who has been around, who has done a lot of things. I think if this is his last year, to finish it the way he’s doing is pretty incredible.”
Before that decision has to be made, Kuroda will try to help the Carp make it through the CL Climax Series and win their first Japan Series title since 1984.
“We still have the Climax Series and Japan Series that we need to win and we’re going to have to keep getting better,” Kuroda said. “Of course, this championship means something to us. We hadn’t won it in 25 years, that’s a long time. It definitely means a lot to our young players and their baseball careers.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.