LOS ANGELES -- For all the talk this season about rookies pitching like seasoned veterans and promising young pitchers finally maturing into the dominant starters they were always supposed to be, the steadiest, most reliable presence all season in the Los Angeles Dodgers rotation has also been its most understated.
And Hiroki Kuroda was never steadier or more reliable -- or less understated -- than he was Tuesday night.
On an evening when he figured to have no margin for error against St. Louis Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, Kuroda matched Carpenter zero for zero through seven innings. And although Kuroda didn't get a win to show for it, the Dodgers did, 1-0 over the Cardinals before 48,046 at Dodger Stadium, along with sole possession of first place in the National League West for the first time this season.
"Kuroda, that was as good as you want to see from him out there," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "It was a great game. Even if they had beaten us, I would still have to say it was a great game."
Kuroda dominated a dangerous Cardinals lineup, retiring Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday a combined six times in six at-bats with only one ball being hit out of the infield. The third-year Japanese import recovered from a one-out double by Randy Winn in the first inning to retire the next seven batters.
That streak ended when Kuroda issued his only walk of the night, to Felipe Lopez with two outs in the third, and Winn followed with a base hit. Kuroda came back to get Pujols to pop up, starting a run of 11 consecutive batters retired.
Kuroda got into trouble for the only time all night in the seventh, giving up back-to-back, two-out singles to Ryan Ludwick and Skip Schumaker to put runners on the corners in a scoreless game. But Yadier Molina hit an 0-1 splitter right at shortstop Rafael Furcal, who started an inning-ending double play.
That was the last of Kuroda's 101 pitches.
"The only thing I was trying to do right there was get a rollover and get a double play," Kuroda said through an interpreter. "In that situation, if he hits a fly ball to the outfield, they score a run. So I just concentrated on the lower part of the [strike zone] and tried to induce a ground ball."
The Dodgers (35-24) weren't able to scratch out a run until the eighth inning, after an equally effective Carpenter had been lifted for a pinch hitter. But Kuroda's performance, which he agreed was his best of the season, set the table for the Dodgers to leapfrog the San Diego Padres and take a half-game lead in the NL West.
The game's only run scored on a much-needed hit by slumping left fielder Manny Ramirez. After Cardinals manager Tony La Russa replaced lefty reliever Trever Miller with right-hander Kyle McClellan especially for Ramirez with runners on first and second and one out, Ramirez went the other way for a looping shot that just eluded the glove of the lunging Ludwick in right field and wound up in the corner. A fan interfered with the ball, making it a ground-rule double, but it didn't change the result of the play in any way.
It was Ramirez's only hit in four at-bats, leaving him with a .212 average (18-for-85) since returning from the disabled list May 8.
By the numbers
11 -- Pitches to Pujols from Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton to begin the ninth inning.
Pujols fouled off seven of those pitches before finally striking out on a checked swing that was appealed to first-base umpire Kerwin Danley, who rang up Pujols. Possibly tired from the exchange, Broxton then gave up a single to Holliday but came back to strike out Ludwick and got Schumaker on a comebacker, wrapping up the game and Broxton's 15th save.
Although Andre Ethier's batting average has plummeted by more than 30 points since he returned from the disabled list -- even after he went 3-for 4-with two doubles against the Cardinals -- he is holding steady in NL All-Star balloting. In the latest running tally announced Tuesday, Ethier was third among NL outfielders, putting him in line to start the July 13 game at Angel Stadium. Ethier, who finished sixth in NL Most Valuable Player voting last season, has never been an All-Star.
Dodgers right-hander Vicente Padilla, who has been on the 15-day disabled list since April 25 with a nerve problem at the top of his right forearm, made his second rehabilitation start for Class A Inland Empire on Tuesday night at Lake Elsinore. He allowed a run on three hits over 4 2/3 innings, striking out four and walking one. Padilla is expected to continue, and possibly conclude, his rehab at Triple-A Albuquerque on Sunday at Oklahoma City.
Outfielder Kyle Russell, the Dodgers' third-round draft pick in 2008 out of the University of Texas, lasted just half a season at Inland Empire, tearing up the California League by hitting .354 with 53 RBIs, a .448 on-base percentage and a league-leading 16 homers. So Russell was promoted to Double-A Chattanooga for the first time Tuesday, where he went 2-for-5 with a triple in his debut against Carolina.
Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw (5-3, 3.06) has made four career starts against the Cardinals, giving up just five runs on 17 hits over 24 2/3 innings, and he also turned in 6 2/3 strong innings in Game 2 of last year's Division Series, putting the Dodgers in position for a dramatic, come-from-behind win. Kershaw made his major league debut against the Cardinals at Dodger Stadium on May 25, 2008. Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright (8-3, 2.05), who entered play Tuesday second in the majors with 88 innings pitched, already has thrown three complete games this season, including a two-hit shutout of the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday in his most recent start.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.