No matter who you spoke to in the Yankees’ clubhouse tonight, all anyone wanted to talk about was Hiroki Kuroda — and rightfully so.
The 37-year-old right-hander from Japan has been a godsend for the Yankees this season, who have dealt with injuries to both CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte. His two-hitter tonight — in which he took a no-no into the seventh and recorded 15 ground ball outs — was just another reminder of how valuable he has been.
“Hiro is my hero,” Nick Swisher said after Tuesday’s 3-0 win. “Tonight was his night.”
Kuroda was brilliant against a Texas Rangers lineup that many consider to be the best in the American League. In a rotation filled with question marks of late, he has been Mr. Consistency. Tonight’s effort dropped his season ERA to 3.06, and his WHIP to 1.15.
It was the sixth time this season that Kuroda tossed at least seven innings and held his opponent scoreless, which is the most such games in the majors.
“This is a very good lineup that he just shut down,” Joe Girardi said. “Probably our best pitching performance this year.”
Elvis Andrus’ infield single ended Kuroda’s bid for a no-hitter in the top of the seventh. Jayson Nix got to the ball — which was hit relatively softly to the left side of the second base bag — but Andrus is the fastest runner that the Rangers have, and Nix never really had a chance to throw him out.
But rather than allow things to snowball, Kuroda simply continued to go about his business and shut Texas down.
“I had to regroup myself a little bit, but like I always say, me having a complete game or a shutout is not really important here,” Kuroda said. “The important thing is for the team to win, and that’s what we were able to accomplish today. That’s why I’m happy.”
• After the game, Kuroda heaped praise on his catcher, Russell Martin. The two have a relationship that dates back to their days with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Kuroda is clearly very comfortable with him. “As a pitcher, you have to throw to any catcher that’s out there, but I think Russell knows who I am – what kind of person I am, what kind of pitcher I am and the pitches that I have,” Kuroda said. “It really helps to have Russell as a catcher.”
• Kuroda also praised Swisher for coming through in the bottom of the seventh with a two-run blast to break a 0-0 tie. The homer came shortly after Kuroda had lost the no-hitter, when it suddenly felt as though the Yankees might have lost momentum. “I was so happy,” he said. “I believe that tenacity pays off at the end, and you have to persevere until the end. You have to believe that your guys will pick you up, and that’s what he did.”
• Girardi was asked when he started to feel like something special might be in store tonight. “I noticed the sound of the crowd with two strikes in the bottom of the sixth,” he said. “You could see that they were starting to get into every pitch. I saw that his stuff was very good early on with all of the groundballs that he was getting. He went through the lineup the first time and maybe got six groundball outs.”
• While Kuroda is known for having a bunch of quality pitches in his arsenal, his stuff was so good tonight that he mostly relied on two pitches — fastball and slider. Kuroda said that his slider was one of the best that he’s had all year. He pitched to contact, finishing with only five strikeouts, but it was clear that he was having his way with this very tough lineup. “It was pretty much fastball, slider getting ahead tonight,” Girardi said. “Those were his two big pitches. He threw some splitters to the left-handers to try put them away, but for the most part it was fastball-slider.”
• Girardi also talked about his veteran presence on the mound, and how he’s able to make adjustments from hitter to hitter. “I think he’s really good at reading swings and setting up his pitches and knowing what he wants to do,” Girardi said. “He works very hard in between his starts to figure out what he wants to do in situations, and it shows.”
• Any thought to taking him out in the ninth? “His pitch count was down, his stuff was still good – he was still throwing 93, 94 with good sink – so he made it pretty easy,” Girardi said.
• Kuroda’s complete game basically makes it back-to-back nights off for the bullpen, which bodes extremely well for the Yankees in the remaining two games of this series. Girardi will have everyone (except for Derek Lowe, of course) available for both games.
• Lost in all of the Hiro madness was the fact that Swisher continues to thrive in the two-hole. He had the big grand slam last night, and once again came through with a clutch homer tonight. “I’m just trying to keep doing the same thing,” Swish said. “The season has a lot of highs, and a lot of lows. I’m just enjoying this time right now, but I’m really enjoying the success of this team.”
• Swisher’s at-bat against Alexi Ogando in the seventh was classic Swish. After going down 0-2, he fought back to make it 2-2 before laying off of a very tough slider. Getting the count to 3-2 enabled him to sit on the fastball and deposit it in the Yankees’ bullpen. “He’s been really good there for us,” Girardi said of Swisher hitting second. “He’s taken his walks, he’s had big hits for us, he’s started rallies – he’s done a number of things for us. That two-run homer is a tremendous at-bat because I think he saw maybe four, five, maybe even six fastballs before he threw him a pretty good slider down and in. Swish laid off it, and then got the next pitch and hit it out for the home run.”
• Swisher’s homer was preceded by a single from Derek Jeter (his AL-leading 156th hit of the season), which knocked Rangers’ starter Matt Harrison out of the game. Ogando was hitting 99 mph on the radar gun, so it was a very different look that Swish had to adjust to. His homer was followed by a solo shot form Mark Teixiera, which gave the Yankees their third run. “I was hitting on sound at that point,” Swisher said. “He was throwing 100 mph. He’s kind of one of those guys who has an arsenal of pitches, but you have to do what you can to stay on that fastball. In that 3-2 count, I was just hoping he threw another fastball, and I was looking to get the barrel on it.”
• It definitely sounds like Swisher likes his new spot in the lineup. “I think Skip made a couple of lineup changes, and from there we’ve just kind of taken off,” he said. “Everybody is going out there and having quality at-bats. When you have the bottom of the lineup kind of turning it over for the top, that’s when the success really takes off.”
• One guy who has been struggling a bit of late is Curtis Granderson. He went 0 for 4 tonight, including a fly out to center in the third with the bases loaded. I’ve noticed that he hasn’t been pulling the ball as much recently, which seems like a good thing, but it also seems to have taken away from his production. “I’m convinced that Curtis will come out of it,” Girardi said. “I thought he had some pretty good swings against a tough left-hander tonight. He just missed some balls.”
• Some pretty good news on A-Rod, who had an X-ray on his broken left hand tonight. There was some confusion earlier when Girardi talked about A-Rod hitting — it sounds like he’s still only swinging with his right hand. But that could change soon. “It’s definitely better,” Girardi said. “The brace will come off. He’s not quite ready to swing, but he will do strengthening exercises, so that’s a good sign for us.”
• I’ll give Girardi the final word on Kuroda, who improved to 11-8 on the season tonight: “He’s been really, really big for us, and he could have a number of more wins. He’s been the hard-luck guy for us this year, where at times we haven’t scored him a lot of runs… Realistically, he could have 15 or 16 (wins) at this juncture.”
Associated Press photos