“He’s been the backbone of our staff,” said pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who wasn’t referring to Clayton Kershaw’s spinal column.The point is not that Maeda has duplicated what Greinke did in 2015, because no one could. The point is that Maeda has been right there in line with Cueto and Price in 2016 and far ahead of Greinke, who has disappeared into the Petrified Forest. His 4.42 ERA is the ninth-worst in the National League.Meanwhile, the Dodgers are 18-11 when Maeda pitches. He’ll work Game 2 of whatever first-round playoff series they’re in.He has handled the differences — the ball, the hard landing places on the mound, the cross-country travel. He has actually feasted on overeager American hitters. At no time with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp did he average more than a strikeout per inning.In 2014 Maeda faced a touring MLB All-Star team in Osaka. Evan Longoria, Justin Morneau, Robinson Cano, Dexter Fowler and Yasiel Puig were among the tourists. Maeda blanked them on two hits in five innings. “I’m sure we’ll see him in the majors,” Morneau said later.In Japan they knew that. When he left the Hiroshma Toyo Carp, he was 30 games over .500, with four seasons of at least 200 innings. It was time to leave.“I realize a lot of those guys were tired after their long season,” Maeda said Tuesday. “So that’s not really what gave me confidence. The confidence came when I was able to pitch well over here. The toughest thing was learning the new hitters. Beyond that I didn’t have any trouble adjusting to anything, and I’ve enjoyed seeing new places.”“He’s got a lot of weapons,” Honeycutt said. “He can spin it, make it elevate, change speeds with it. He’s very confident in his slider, which is his best pitch, and I’ve seen him shake off the catcher a few times to get to it. It’s funny that he’s held everything together. He’s the guy we thought we’d have to give the most time off to.”The Dodgers did, too. They provided a ladder of incentives that Maeda keeps climbing. If Maeda pitches six innings tonight in his 30th start, he’ll draw an extra $7.5 million.Meanwhile, Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-jin Ryu threw before the game, and Alex Wood was activated, and Scott Kazmir is fighting to return before the postseason. Wednesday is a Maeda night. The Dodgers can catch their breath. Newsroom GuidelinesNews TipsContact UsReport an Error Maeda is like that. When Zack Greinke left the Dodgers last December, he left an empty chair beside Clayton Kershaw. And when the Dodgers blissfully watched Johnny Cueto and David Price sign elsewhere, fandom and press (yes, guilty) went into a coughing fit. How could the Dodgers throw away their rotational dominance, the one hammer they held over the heads of the National League?A month later the Dodgers signed Maeda. He was 28. At 22 he had won the Sawamura Award, the equivalent of the Cy Young. He had also won the unoifficial pitching Triple Crown, by leading his league in strikeouts, ERA and wins. However, Maeda was carrying a questionable elbow to the States, so he settled for a base salary of $25 million over eight years. Remember, Greinke signed with Arizona for $206.5 million over eight years, including $32 million in 2016.Now the Dodgers essentially have three pitching staffs: one that’s healthy, one that’s headed for the disabled list and one that’s coming off. The easiest way to stump manager Dave Roberts is to ask, “Who’s pitching tomorrow?”But Maeda has been there all along. As he pitches Wednesday against San Francisco, he is 15-9 with 169 strikeouts in 168 1/3 innings. He ranks in the National League top ten in wins and WHIP and batting average-against.And no one outside Dodger Stadium seems to know it. The hole Greinke left was like a rock into the water, restored almost immediately. Kenta Maeda reminds you of the smog.Remember the smog? Thirty years ago it was L.A.’s own little gray blanket. It blocked out the Hollywood sign; it gummed up the lungs; it made people with respiratory problems stay home. Johnny Carson put it in his monologue every night. It was in all our dialogues, too.Now it’s gone. Not gone, but certainly not noticeable. But the improvement isn’t noticed either. You hardly ever hear anyone say, “Gee, isn’t it great that we have the Clean Air Act and emission standards and we can actually jog for two miles without coughing up our guts?”No. We’ve moved on to more complaints. The squeaky wheel gets noticed. The smooth wheel rolls silently.