LOS ANGELES -- After being struck in the head by a line drive just 23 days ago, it was unclear if right-hander Hiroki Kuroda would pitch again this season.

But Kuroda battled back and returned on Sunday to pitch admirably, but the offense couldn't back him enough in the Dodgers' 4-3 loss to the Padres in front of 47,528 at Dodger Stadium, trimming their National League West lead to just 3 1/2 games over the Rockies and 5 1/2 games over the Giants.

"I've never been hit in the head like that, but I can only imagine what it's like mentally to come back like that," said Kuroda's batterymate, Russell Martin. "It seemed like he didn't have any fear out there today, and that's a huge key."

Martin was right about Kuroda being fearless, as he said through a translator that he wasn't "conscious about it or fearful at all" in his first start since Rusty Ryal's line drive struck him in the head on Aug. 15.

"I have to feel lucky after an injury like that to be back on the mound," Kuroda said. "But every time I go out on the mound, I go out to win, and I didn't do that today. That's the only regret I had."

Dodgers manager Joe Torre blamed the long layoff for Kuroda's struggles as he allowed four runs, three earned, on five hits over five innings.

"I thought he was all right, but a little rusty," Torre said. "But I thought he competed very well. I thought it was a good first step for him coming back."

Kuroda struggled with his command early and allowed a run in the opening frame when Rafael Furcal fielded a ground ball and threw home with one out, but David Eckstein avoided the tag to score the game's first run.

"We had a tough break in the first inning," Torre said. "Raffy made a good play. Just a bang-bang at the plate and we missed the tag."

The right-hander then struggled again in the third when he loaded the bases with none out before Kevin Kouzmanoff delivered a two-run single. But Kuroda was able to get out of the jam later in the inning on a diving catch by Juan Pierre in center field to end the inning.

Kuroda, however, allowed a run in the fifth on an opposite-field homer by Adrian Gonzalez, his 35th of the season.

"I thought he pitched well, but he just had that pitch against Gonzalez he'd like to have back," Martin said. "It took him awhile to find the feel for his fastball, but once he got into the swing of things, he was able to keep the ball down better."

The homer gave the Padres a 4-1 cushion that was important as the Dodgers tried to mount comebacks late in the game after struggling against starter Tim Stauffer, who allowed three runs, one earned, over 6 2/3 innings.

Los Angeles' first run came in the fourth inning on an RBI single by Martin after Manny Ramirez opened the inning with a single. But the Dodgers didn't score again until the seventh, when Andre Ethier had a two-run double after Everth Cabrera made an error at shortstop earlier in the inning. But pinch-hitter Matt Kemp flew out to center field to end the inning and the threat.

The Dodgers couldn't get anything going in the eighth inning, however, as Luke Gregerson struck out the side with 12 of his 15 pitches being sliders.

"My slider has always been my best pitch," said Gregerson, who has a 3.05 ERA in 58 games, the second most on the team. "Most of the time, I can throw it for a strike better than any other pitch."

The Dodgers, though, threatened again in the ninth against closer Heath Bell when Rafael Furcal drew a walk with one out and the Dodgers brought pinch-hitter Jim Thome to the plate.

But Thome flied out to left field and appeared to injure his foot as he limped down the first baseline.

"I think it was something under his foot," Torre said of Thome's injury. "I think it's something he has that he just may have irritated. Hopefully that's all it is, but I don't really know."

Andre Ethier then flied to left field to end the game as the Dodgers finished their homestand with a disappointing 3-4 record despite playing the D-backs and Padres.

But Ethier said after the game that the team can't dwell on their recent struggles.

"Anytime you lose games, you're losing opportunities to better yourself for the postseason," Ethier said. "It's September, and we need to put everything behind us and look forward and win games to get to the playoffs."