LOS ANGELES - The game couldn't have started any better for the Dodgers.
Hiroki Kuroda, who entered Thursday's home contest with the St. Louis Cardinals undefeated and sporting a tidy 1.72 ERA, breezed through the opening frame 1-2-3, and then the Dodgers jumped on Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia for an early run and were poised to add to their lead with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the first.
It was just the kind of beginning the Dodgers needed after a long road trip in which they went 3-5 against three NL West rivals. But it all went downhill from there.
James Loney and Jamie Hoffmann failed to add to the lead, leaving the bases loaded with just one run on the board. Kuroda gave up two runs in the top of the second, and the Dodgers were soon on their way to a 9-5 loss that dropped them one game under .500 on the young season.
Against a punishing Cardinals squad that has now scored 46 runs in five games, Kuroda was uncharacteristically off. St. Louis' Matt Holliday led off the second with a double to left field and later scored on Yadier Molina's RBI single. Then Lance Berkman crossed home plate on Daniel Descalso's sacrifice fly to give his club a lead it would not relinquish. St. Louis tacked on runs in the third, fourth and fifth innings as Kuroda struggled with the Cardinals lineup.
"I lost my rhythm when I gave up that hit to Holliday in the second inning," Kuroda said. "It was a split-finger fastball, but I just couldn't find the right grip."
This was certainly a different Kuroda from the one that came within one out of a shutout last Saturday in San Diego. But in trying to give his bullpen a night off, Kuroda threw 117 pitches against the Padres, a high number for this early in the season.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said that he wasn't sure if the previous outing affected Kuroda's performance against St. Louis.
"Just didn't seem to be as sharp tonight," Mattingly said. "It's kind of the danger of last time. He goes deep into that game, going for that shutout, so you allow him to go a little farther than you would normally like. You don't know if it's a byproduct of that, but he wasn't as sharp tonight."
The Dodgers crept to within 4-3 when Jamey Carroll singled, stole second, tagged on a fly to left and scored on a passed ball in the fourth. But in the fifth, Albert Pujols fouled off three consecutive pitches and then turned on a 93 mph sinker for a solo home run that just snuck over the left-field fence.
And as quickly as Pujols' ball left Dodger Stadium, Kuroda unraveled on the mound. After getting Holliday to pop up for the inning's second out, Kuroda gave up back-to-back singles to Berkman and Skip Schumaker, prompting a visit from Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt.
Kuroda responded to the pep talk by getting ahead of Yadier Molina 1-2, but then his slider failed him, badly. Kuroda bounced consecutive sliders past catcher A.J. Ellis (the second missed its target inside by a couple of feet) to allow Berkman work his way from second to home plate.
Kuroda struck out Molina to escape the inning with no further damage, but his fate already had been sealed.
"We made some good contact and had a couple of breaks on some balls that were hit," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "I thought [Kuroda] threw the ball well. He made a couple of mistakes and we got to them."
The 10 hits allowed by Kuroda nearly equaled the total of 12 he surrendered in his previous two starts, and the five earned runs he gave up in five innings doubled his ERA to 3.48. He also threw a career-high three wild pitches, blaming the two to Molina on an inability to get a good grip on the ball.
While the Dodgers have now lost six of their last nine games and sit 4 1/2 games behind Colorado in the NL West standings, Mattingly does not think his club is playing bad baseball. The Dodgers got another strong start from Carroll at shortstop (3-for-5 with two runs). Andre Ethier extended his hitting streak to 11 games. Matt Kemp went 3-for-5 with a home run and two RBIs, and Loney had his first multihit game of the season.
"I really don't feel like we're playing badly," Mattingly said. "The effort that we're getting and the way guys are playing, we'll accept that. We don't really want to accept the results of what's happened. But if we keep getting this effort ... we're going to win a good share of our games."
David Ely is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.