ATLANTA -- Hiroki Kuroda's hands were on his knees, his chin was in his chest and, for perhaps the first time in the normally stoic right-hander's three seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, his heart was on his sleeve.
It was the bottom of the seventh inning, and Kuroda, a potential free agent after the season who might be down to his final handful of starts in a Dodgers uniform, had just watched a ball hit by Atlanta Braves rookie Brooks Conrad sail over the center-field wall. And Kuroda seemed to know at that point that his fate had been sealed yet again.
Indeed, it was. The Dodgers lost 1-0 to the Braves before 38,602 on Friday night at Turner Field, and so did Kuroda.
Kuroda came back to retire the next two batters, completing a performance in which he gave up that lone run and four hits over seven dazzling innings on an evening when anything less simply wouldn't have been good enough. As it turned out, it wasn't good enough anyway, and for the fifth time this season, Kuroda wound up the losing pitcher in a game in which the Dodgers were shut out.
In those five games, Kuroda has a 2.73 ERA and has given up a total of 25 hits and six walks in 33 innings, with 28 strikeouts.
No one had to tell him coming into this one that he would have to be virtually perfect. The Dodgers, who haven't exactly had a knack for beating good pitchers this season, ran into a guy who might be the National League's best starter so far in the second half, veteran right-hander Tim Hudson, and the result was all too predictable.
So after Kuroda threw what might have been his only bad pitch all night, a 2-and-0 sinker to Conrad that stayed up in the zone, he knew how it all was going to end. He knew he had been a hard-luck pitcher for much of the season, the Dodgers scoring three runs or fewer in nine of his 11 losses. What he didn't know about was the five shutout losses.
"I didn't realize that," Kuroda said through interpreter Kenji Nimura. "But it's really disappointing when you say that tonight is the fifth one."
Oh, by the way, the opposing pitchers in those five games? Johan Santana of the New York Mets, Clay Buchholz of the Boston Red Sox, Josh Johnson of the Florida Marlins, Adam Wainwright of the St. Louis Cardinals and Hudson. All but Santana were 2010 All-Stars, and Santana was a 2009 All-Star and one of the best starting pitchers of this generation.
It is mostly for that reason that Kuroda's season must be evaluated not on his won-lost record (8-11), but on the way he has pitched. He has a 3.53 ERA, a 1.25 WHIP and a strikeout-walk ratio of 3-to-1.
"As a starter, not just me but any pitcher, you go out there to win," Kuroda said. "It's disappointing any time you lose."
To some extent, it's the story of Kuroda's career with the Dodgers. Since signing a three-year, $35.3 million contract with the Dodgers before the 2008 season, when he came over from the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, he has won a total of 25 games -- meaning that by the end of that contract, he will have cost the Dodgers more than $1 million per victory. But at the same time, Kuroda's ERAs in his first two seasons were 3.73 and 3.76, and his WHIPs were 1.22 and 1.14. So if you judge Kuroda strictly on the quality of his work, the Dodgers appear to have gotten their money's worth.
Especially this season.
"He has pitched so well this year," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "He hasn't had many games where he has just given it up. ... He has kept us in games and just been very tough."
But once again, it wasn't enough for the slumping Dodgers (59-57), who started their previous road trip with what they thought was a pivotal victory in San Diego and then dropped five in a row, and who have started this seven-game trip in exactly the same sequence, losing three in a row since starting with a win Tuesday night at Philadelphia.
Kuroda has thus far been mum on his after-the-season plans. There is a clause in his contract that allows him to file for free agency even though he will have only three years of service time, and he might opt to return to Japan. But if he winds up spurning the Dodgers, well, given the level of run support he has received, who can really blame him?
"I can promise you his teammates like him," Torre said. "It's nothing personal."
But that doesn't make it sting any less.
After being told by Torre he was no longer the Dodgers' closer -- at least for now -- Jonathan Broxton went to the bullpen well before batting practice and worked on his mechanics with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and bullpen coach Ken Howell. A few hours later, Torre brought Broxton in to pitch the eighth inning behind Kuroda, and the result was a mixed bag.
It looked good in the box score, a scoreless inning in which he gave up only an infield single to Omar Infante on a high chopper. But the fly ball that ended the inning was one Brian McCann hammered to the warning track in dead center, where Matt Kemp ran it down.
If the results were mixed, so were the reviews.
"This was a positive step," Broxton said. "I felt good out there."
Torre saw it a bit differently.
"He was all right," Torre said. "It looked like he was still feeling for it. They worked on some stuff in the bullpen before the game, so I'm glad he had a good result."
Honeycutt said it was Howell who noticed Broxton was altering his arm angle, which was taking him out of line in his delivery and causing him to lose his command. If nothing else, that problem appears to have been ironed out. But that doesn't mean Broxton will be closing again any time soon.
After declining to speak with reporters before the game, Broxton finally did address his demotion -- which came after he blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning Thursday night at Philadelphia without recording an out -- after the game.
Specifically, Broxton was asked whether he understood the decision.
"With the way I've been pitching the last four weeks?" he said.
Left-hander Ted Lilly (5-8, 3.60) will make his third start for the Dodgers since being acquired from the Chicago Cubs at the trading deadline. Lilly won both of his first two starts for the Dodgers, marking the first time this season he has won consecutive starts. He is 3-2 with a 5.02 ERA in eight career starts against the Braves. Longtime Dodgers right-hander Derek Lowe (11-9, 4.40) will start for the Braves. He didn't face his former team when the Braves visited Dodger Stadium for a four-game series in early June.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.