CHICAGO -- Hiroki Kuroda, who never finished in first place in 11 seasons of Japanese professional baseball, came to the Major Leagues, and in his rookie season with the Dodgers, he finished first.
On Saturday, he can end a franchise's 20-year playoff drought when he starts against the Cubs in Game 3 of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers need to win once in the next three games to advance to the NL Championship Series for the first time since 1988.
The bar for Kuroda has been set high by the first two Dodgers starters, Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley, who allowed the Cubs a combined three runs in 12 2/3 innings in the first two games of the series.
Nobody is really sure what to expect from the 33-year-old Kuroda, who has had his moments great and otherwise this year. He dismissed the notion that there's less pressure pitching with a two-game advantage.
"I don't feel less pressure, per se, because no matter what kind of game I pitch, the approach to the game is pretty much the same, whether it's the postseason or regular season," Kuroda said. "I've always felt pressure during the regular season. So, it's pretty much the same."
Catcher Russell Martin isn't worried about Kuroda's composure.
"We're up two games to nothing, so there shouldn't be that much pressure," Martin said. "He should just go out there and throw strikes, make them earn their way. That's what he's been doing for the most part of the season. When he's on, he's on. He can be one of the best pitchers in the game."
Kuroda was very much on in his two starts against the Cubs this year. He was tagged with a tough loss at Wrigley Field on May 27, allowing one earned run in 6 1/3 innings. Ten days later at home, he shut out the Cubs on four hits with 11 strikeouts and no walks, one of his two shutouts this season.
Did you know? Kuroda will be the fourth Japanese-born pitcher to
start a playoff game in Major League history, joining Hideo Nomo, Masato Yoshii and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
"I faced them twice during the regular season and I was able to pitch well on both times," Kuroda said. "But it doesn't really mean that I'm going to pitch well again during the postseason."
Kuroda signed a three-year, $35.2 million contract to join a rotation that already had veterans Lowe and Brad Penny, with Billingsley on the rise. All the Dodgers wanted was Kuroda to be a No. 3 or 4 starter. He's given them pretty much what they expected.
"One of the reasons I came to America and changed my environment was that I wanted to win," Kuroda said. "So many players play their whole life and never win a pennant. That seemed like my case in Japan. So what we did here, for me, it was huge. It's the reason I came here, because I wanted to win."
He's 9-10 with a 3.73 ERA, eating up 183 1/3 innings, even with a short stint on the disabled list. He's been unbeatable at times, becoming the first Dodgers starter to throw two shutouts in the same season since 2005 (the second a one-hitter), but he's also had five starts in which he couldn't finish four innings.
If Kuroda monitors his personal achievement, he doesn't let on. He said he turned emotional last Thursday when the D-backs lost in St. Louis to allow the Dodgers to clinch the NL West title.
"I watched many years as players on other teams in Japan celebrated in front of me," he said. "I wanted to experience that and when all the players started shaking my hand and hugging me, that was what I had waited for to experience and it is something I will never forget."
Kuroda, who was injured while practicing for Japan's national team in the World Baseball Classic two years ago, said he is undecided whether he will participate in the upcoming one.
"As someone from Japan, I would like to have the Japanese flag on my uniform and be a member of the national team," he said. "But as you know, there were times this year when my shoulder was not in good condition and I'm committed to working differently during the offseason to assure that I'm stronger next year. To be honest, I'm still thinking about it."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.