Hiroki Kuroda survived the horror of a line drive off his head last summer and showed no mental trepidation climbing back on the mound and risking that it might happen again.
What Kuroda still isn't sure about, though, is a pain in the neck that returned during winter workouts.
Kuroda now says the slight herniation in the disk in his neck -- technically injury No. 3 during a disappointing 2009 -- was probably a whiplash result of the line drive off his head Aug. 15 in Arizona.
"It's hugely possible that was why," he said. "The ball hit on the right side of my head and it was kind of whiplash. Where I felt the pain was the left part of the neck. When I thought the pain was gone, it came right back. I think getting hit in the head had a lot to do with it."
Kuroda said he thought the neck was fully healed until he started winter workouts, only for discomfort to return.
He credits a rare method of acupuncture administered in his native Japan for relieving the pain. He reported to Dodger Stadium last month for workouts and has had five bullpen sessions painfree. He continues regular acupuncture and message treatment from Dodgers therapist Ichiro Tani.
"I think I have recovered," he said last week. "It doesn't hurt anymore."
Nonetheless, Kuroda's health is one of the big unknowns as the Dodgers open Spring Training this weekend. Only a year ago, Kuroda was considered by many to be the Dodgers' ace.
He was, after all, named Opening Day starter after stepping up big-time with a pair of postseason wins in 2008. But after winning the 2009 opener, Kuroda suffered a strained left oblique muscle during a bullpen session before his second start and spent nearly two months recovering.
Kuroda looked rusty going 2-5 over the next two months and just seemed to be gaining some momentum with a pair of August wins when Rusty Ryal turned around a 94-mph fastball with a line drive that drilled Kuroda above the right temple near the hairline. At the time, Kuroda was throwing a two-hit shutout through five innings.
Television technicians estimated that there was about two-thirds of a second between the time the pitch left Kuroda's hand and the point at which the line drive struck his head. Kuroda, diagnosed with a concussion, at the time said he was "lucky to be alive."
He returned after three weeks with a loss, then won his next three starts down the stretch, but pitched poorly in a loss to the Pirates Sept. 28, after which he complained of a sore neck that was diagnosed as a slight disk herniation.
Kuroda missed his last regular-season start and was left off the roster for the NL Division Series. He said he was healthy enough to be added to the roster for the NL League Championship Series, only to go belly-up in his only start against the Phillies, shelled for six runs in 1 1/3 innings of the 11-0 Game 3 blowout loss.
"In my last game there was no pain," Kuroda said, "but during the offseason there was a little bit of pain when I worked out hard. It would get a little tight, but not the same pain I felt during the season."
So he saw his regular acupuncturist in Hiroshima, who resorted to a treatment that is very irregular even in Japan, according to Kuroda.
"Normally they use one needle in acupuncture, but he used a device with several needles in a cylindrical tube," said Kuroda. "He pressed it and many needles came through and it was really painful. But the treatment worked, it relieved the pain.
"Having said that, I have to be careful to prevent the pain from happening because it comes all of a sudden. During the season, I have to be careful."
Kuroda enters the final season of a three-year, $35.3 million contract. He is the Dodgers' highest-paid pitcher (receiving $15.4 million this year, including a pro-rated signing bonus) and second-highest-paid player (although most of Manny Ramirez's $20 million salary is deferred), but he won only nine games in 2008 and eight last year.
He's a strike-thrower, with a 3.74 cumulative ERA in the Major Leagues an indication of his ability, but his two-year record is 17-17.
"Last season I was really frustrated, to say the least," he said. "Out of all the seasons I've had, including [11 in] Japan, I've never had a year with so many injuries. It was really stressful. But you learn from mistakes and try not to get injured and do whatever possible to avoid injuries and stay healthy.
"It's really difficult to prevent getting hit in the head or prevent injuring an oblique muscle. They happen in a blink of a second in a game situation. But having gone through it, I can mentally prepare if I get injured with the same pain to go through the recovery period."
Kuroda turned 35 last week and has thrown more than 2,000 professional innings.
"I don't feel I'm that old, and as long as I play at this level, I don't want to think about my age or that age has a lot to do with it, at least I don't want to think that way," he said. "You can't be prepared for a game if you are afraid of injury or afraid of getting old. I don't think I'm afraid of anything, that's what's allowed me to play until now."
He said he won't decided how long he wants to play or whether his career would continue in the Major Leagues or Japan until after this season, but insists he's as motivated to compete as he was when he signed two years ago.
"I'd like to play as long as I can," he said. "Having gotten hit by the pitch, it could have been the end of my baseball career and the end of my life. I'm just glad I have another chance to play, and now that I have the chance, I want to live my dream as long as possible. I don't really feel pressure because of last year. But because of last year, I like to play to the max, and I don't want any regrets at end of the season."
He was asked if Dodgers fans have seen the real Kuroda.
"If you look at a whole season, they probably haven't," he said. "If you look at certain games, I've pitched really well. What I have to do this year is increase the number of games I've pitched well, and if I do that, the people will see me at my best."