"I'm well aware that he's one of the best pitchers over here," Kawakami said through an interpreter. "I do look at it as somewhat of a challenge."
Beginning with his eight shutout innings against the Blue Jays on May 22, Kawakami has opposed starters with sub-3.00 ERAs on seven different occasions. And he has produced a 2.98 ERA in those starts.
"He's done it every time he faces a team's ace," Braves manager Bobby Cox said of Kawakami. "I can't remember a time when he didn't do it."
Until Thursday, however, Kawakami had outpitched his opposing ace just once -- against Halladay. He had turned in some fine performances, yes, trading zeros with Kershaw and earning the win against a struggling Daisuke Matsuzaka in June. But his 2-3 record in those seven sub-3.00 games told more of a story than such statistics usually do.
Kawakami always gave his team a chance to win, as Cox made sure to note. But rarely was he the dominant reason why the Braves actually won.
Thursday, he was. Kawakami's seven innings included five strikeouts, seven hits, two walks, an RBI single for Cory Sullivan and nothing else of note. Though Cox sensed his pitcher was tired after six innings, he nonetheless sent him out for the seventh -- and Kawakami, who was indeed fatigued, fired one last scoreless inning.
"I was tired in the fourth inning," Kawakami joked.
This time, he did more than keep the Braves in the game. He all but won it for them.
"And we managed three runs against Santana," Cox said. "That's hard to do."
Those runs came early for the Braves -- loudly, on Brian McCann's solo shot in the fourth, and more quietly on Ryan Church's RBI double and Omar Infante's sacrifice fly in the third. Santana, who needed just 77 pitches to complete seven innings, has now lost six times this season in games in which he's allowed three runs or fewer.
A second run didn't come for the Mets until the eighth inning, when Jeff Francoeur reached base on a Chipper Jones error and scored. But that was little help to Santana.
"He's one of the toughest pitchers in the game to face," McCann said. "You know going in, you've got to get a couple, and you've got to hope your pitcher goes out and deals. And Kenshin did that tonight."
It was an important start for the Braves -- still very much alive in both the division and Wild Card races -- but an important one also for Kawakami. Several lockers down in the visiting clubhouse at Citi Field, Tim Hudson stood and soaked in the win, three days before his penultimate rehab start at Triple-A.
When Hudson returns, someone will need to move to the bullpen to make room for him. And with Javier Vazquez, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens all pitching so well, Kawakami was once thought to be the prime candidate.
It would be quite difficult, however, for Cox to demote a pitcher who has turned in four straight quality starts and who -- if not for some sub-par run support -- could easily have a dozen or more wins to his credit. Part of the reason why Kawakami has pitched so well against aces is because, aside from a rough patch here and there, he has pitched well against everyone.
"I'm going to go a little bit further and talk about how good he's been all year," McCann said. "He's just been dynamite. It's been fun to catch."
He has, in a sense, been a model fifth starter, keeping the Braves in every game. And that's what a team in a pennant race needs.
That -- the pennant race -- also isn't lost on the 34-year-old Kawakami, who won three titles in his 11-year career with the Chunichi Dragons of Japan's Central League. Kawakami knows that if he can continue pitching better as the competition grows stiffer, the Braves will continue winning.
"And hopefully," Cox said, "someone in front of us is going to lose one of these days."