Hiroki Kuroda is a man of few words, but if there was a time when you might expect him to show a little excitement, tonight probably would have been the night. His season got off to a rocky start with his first two outings not living up to his high standards, but boy, did he bounce back on Sunday.
Kuroda hurled a five-hitter to lead the Yankees to a 3-0 win over the division rival Orioles, but it did nothing to change his unassuming nature.
“Obviously, I wasn’t able to get off to a good start to the season, so I didn’t really feel good about it,” he said. “For today, I think it went well, but it’s just today. I’m just going to prepare for the next start.”
That certainly isn’t a sexy answer, and sometimes I can’t help but wonder if anything gets lost in translation, but it’s a fitting answer considering the man behind it. Kuroda takes his job very seriously — many players marvel at his level of preparation — and the results speak for themselves. At 38 years old, he continues to evolve and almost seems to be getting better, which speaks volumes about his workmen-like approach.
“He’s got outstanding command,” Joe Girardi said. “When I look at Hiroki, he’s able to read swings, he’s able to change speeds, he has pitches that he can freeze hitters on his fastball, he can get them to swing and miss his split and his slider, and he has his curveball that he goes to just to get them off balance… He really knows how to pitch.”
• I’m stating the obvious here, but Kuroda’s performance bodes very well for the Yankees chances. The injuries that they’re dealing with in the lineup have been well-publicized, but they have to be very encouraged by what they’ve seen from their top three starters so far this season. CC Sabathia has had two very good starts in a row, Andy Pettitte has been extremely effective despite his back issues and now Kuroda just gave them their best outing of the young season. Their top three can matchup with any team in the American League. “We pitched pretty well in this series,” Girardi said. “You look at what CC did, you look at what Hiroki did, I mean, they threw extremely well. We have to win these types of games.”
• Girardi was asked if there was any hesitation to send Kuroda back out for the ninth at 99 pitches. “Not for me,” he said. “Just because of what I saw the inning before.”
• The decision had to be pretty easy for Girardi based on ALL of the innings that Kuroda threw on Sunday. He did not issue a single walk, recorded 16 outs via the ground ball and never faced more than four batters in any inning. A runner didn’t reach second base until the ninth, and that was only because of an error. He had all of his pitches working, but the key seemed to be the sinker, which led to so many ground balls. “Against the lefties, as well as the righties, I was able to throw my sinkers with precision,” Kuroda said. “Basically, the movement and what the catcher says and how they react to it. Today especially, Cervi had great game calling. I just followed his lead.”
• Brett Gardner came up with the big hit of the game with his two-run homer in the fifth, but the first thing he wanted to talk about was Kuroda. He made an interesting comparison that may seem odd at first, but makes sense the more you think about it. “It’s a lot like Pettitte,” he said. “They pitch a little bit differently, obviously, but they’re guys that pound the zone and throw breaking balls for strikes early in the count. They get ahead of hitters and you don’t have to do a whole lot of work out there in the outfield.”
• Lyle Overbay had a good quote about how he knew Kuroda’s sinker was special tonight. “It was down and it was running, a lot more than I think they were expecting. To see a lefty kind of go like this (flinch) on an inside fastball and he’s almost hitting the middle (of the plate), that’s impressive,” he said, referring to Kuroda’s strikeout of Chris Davis in the top of the seventh. “He has a good sinker but I’ve never seen a lefty do that consistently. You get that occasionally.”
• The Yankees broke up what was shaping up to be a pitcher’s duel in the fifth. Before that inning, they too had failed to have a runner reach second base, but the bottom of the order came up huge to set the table for Gardner. Brennan Boesch and Francisco Cervelli started the inning with back-to-back singles, with Boesch advancing to third base on a fly ball from Overbay. He scored on a sac fly from Jayson Nix, and then Gardner came through with the big blow. The Yankees’ leadoff hitter took the first pitch that he saw and crushed his second home run of the season off of the foul pole in right field to put his team up 3-0. “Obviously, I was swinging,” Gardner said. “I was looking for a good pitch to hit, and I think he was trying to go away. He left it in and I was able to keep it fair. It’s nice to be able to come through in a situation like that.”
• Boesch got a somewhat unexpected start in right field despite the lefty Wei-Yin Chen starting for the O’s, and he made the most of it. He was the only Yankee with multiple hits and was aggressive getting from second to third on Overbay’s fly ball in the fifth to put himself in position to score the go-ahead run. Boesch and the rest of the bottom of the order set things up for Gardner’s home run. “You need everyone to contribute,” Girardi said. “You get two hits out of Boesch, a big hit out of Cervi to keep that inning going, you get a big sac fly out of Nixie to get us on the board, and Lyle Overbay had a hit and a fly ball (to move Boesch over)… You look at what the bottom of the order did tonight, and it was very important to us scoring runs. And then Brett had the big hit.”
• Other than the fifth inning, Chen pitched a pretty good game for Baltimore. Here is Gardner’s assessment. “He keeps the fastball away from you, he’s got a little cutter that he throws, and when he comes in, it’s mostly for effect,” he said. “He keeps you off balance with the breaking ball, and he did a good job tonight.”
• Despite a slow start to the season, the Yankees stayed the course and never hit the panic button. It was obviously way too early to get caught up in a few losses, and the Yanks have now won five of their last six. “Especially after being 1-4, I think our guys have done very well and responded very well to a slow start,” Girardi said. “We just didn’t play very well in the first five games. We had the good game against the Red Sox – the one we won – but we didn’t play very well. At times we didn’t pitch, at times we didn’t hit, but I’m happy with what these guys have done so far. The way they’ve shown their character, and guys have stepped up and done a good job in some people’s absence.”
• The Yankees have an off day on Monday, then start a series at home against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday. I don’t know if he has kidding or not, but Gardner seemed to generally have no idea who the Yankees were playing next. “I didn’t even know this,” he said with genuine surprise in his voice. “You’re telling me.”
Associated Press photos