Joe Girardi hinted prior to tonight’s game that he might give Mariano Rivera the day off, and when a save opportunity rolled around in the ninth inning, the greatest closer of time was nowhere to be found.
“(Pitching coach) Larry (Rothschild) talked to Mo, I talked to Larry, and we just felt that it was better,” Girardi said. “Mo said, basically, he’s never going to back out of a situation. Never. And that’s where as a pitching coach and a manager, you have to manage the player and understand that sometimes they just need a day – whether they want to go out there or not.”
Rivera blew a third straight save for the first time in his career on Sunday night, but Girardi wouldn’t even entertain the idea that this was any kind of a mental break. He had expressed concern about Rivera throwing at least 23 pitches in each of his last three appearances, and he felt that he needed a day off from a physical standpoint.
In Rivera’s stead, Girardi turned to Boone Logan and David Robertson to pitch the ninth. After Logan put a man on, Robertson surrendered a one-out RBI double to Josh Hamilton. But he shut the door with the bases loaded thanks to back-to-back strikeouts.
“I look forward to it, yeah,” Robertson said of the save opportunity. “I guess that’s one way of putting it. It turned into a really sticky situation. I didn’t really help myself out much, but I just had to hold it down.”
• The ninth inning was a bit hairy, but the first eight were a breeze thanks to Hiroki Kuroda. It’s gotten to the point where you expect brilliance out of him. He hurled eight shutout innings, allowing three hits and one walk while striking out seven. He was never in any real trouble, as he’s now allowed just five earned runs in his last 48 innings while lowering his season-ERA to 2.33. “I wish I knew the answer to that,” Kuroda said when asked how he’s been so successful this season. “Hopefully someone will teach me what is working.”
• What’s working is everything. Kuroda is so successful because he has a variety of plus pitches that all seem to have late movement. He uses his two-seamer to tail away from left-handers, his slider to get ugly swings out of right-handers and his splitter to make guys chase in the dirt. For most of the season, Detroit’s Max Scherzer and Texas’ Yu Darvish have been the leading American League Cy Young candidates, but Kuroda may be forcing his way into the conversation. He has a major league-high nine scoreless starts this season. “Hiroki has been amazing lately,” Robertson said. “Every time he takes the ball, it seems like he gives you seven, eight innings. He’s exceptional out there. His two-seamer is working, his split, his slider – everything he threw was baffling their hitters tonight. He seems to be doing that the last couple weeks, or shoot, the whole season.”
• Kuroda isn’t type to give any long-winded answers, although he noted being more comfortable against American League hitters and keeping the ball down as some of the keys to his success. When Girardi was asked about why he thinks Kuroda has taken the next step into the ace role this season, his answer was a bit different. “I think that it took him a month to get comfortable last year, is what it is, with his surroundings,” he said. “I think Hiroki went through some periods of trying to validate everything, and the reason that he was here. It’s not unusual for player when he comes here to have an adjustment period, and he made it pretty quickly. To me, that’s probably the biggest difference.”
• Is Kuroda exceeding even Girardi’s wildest expectations? “I don’t know if you can expect anyone to be that dominant in this day and age when there’s a lot of ways that teams can score runs,” he said. “But he has been brilliant. To give us those eight innings – we knew we needed a lot of distance out of him tonight. You think about the second at-bat of the game, the tough at-bat that (Kole) Calhoun put on him. You’re going, ‘We don’t need a high pitch count right now. We don’t need this.’ He was able to settle down and make a lot of good pitches.”
• It’s a good thing that Kuroda didn’t need much run support, because he didn’t get much. The Yankees scratched their first run across the board in the third. Eduardo Nunez singled and went to second on fielder’s choice, eventually scoring on Brett Gardner’s two-out RBI single. In the seventh, Curtis Granderson added an insurance run with a blast into the second deck in right field. It was third home run of the season as he looks to regain his power stroke after missing most of the year due to injuries. “He knows when he’s starting to get right. It’s a feeling,” Girardi said of Granderson. “When you feel that you’re seeing the ball better, and that young man (Garrett Richards) has good stuff. Curtis was able to hit that home run, and as I said, it’s a feeling that a hitter gets. You can’t always notice it.”
• Girardi was asked if he ever allows himself to dream of what it would be like to beat a team by seven or eight runs. “I think like that sometimes, but that’s not who we are right now, and that’s OK,” he said. “The bottom line is winning games.”
• It was an interesting night for Alex Rodriguez. The controversial third baseman got off to a good start, singling to left-center in his first at-bat. But Rodriguez was awkwardly caught stealing to end the second inning without even making it halfway to second base. He grounded into double plays in each of his next two at-bats, drawing boos from the home crowd.
• Robertson came on with a man on and walked Mike Trout on a close 3-2 pitch before giving up a bloop double to Hamilton. They intentionally walked Erick Aybar to load the bases with one out, but Robertson worked his magic with two consecutive strikeouts to end the game. “I was trying to make a good pitch,” he said. “We had a runner on first, so I was hoping to maybe try to get a ground ball double play. It didn’t really work, and I ended up walking Trout. After that, I faced Hamilton and he got that hit over Alex’s head at third. I was like, ‘Good God. I’m in a tough spot now, and it just got even worse.’ I just had to dig deep and find a way to get out of it.”
• Girardi was asked if he ever thinks about what life after Mo will be like. His answer was classic Girardi. “I never think about next year,” he said. “I worry about tomorrow.”
• I’ll give the final word to Robertson, who spoke about what it was like to pitch while the crowd chanted for Rivera: “That was a little different,” he said. “It’s not easy to pitch when the crowd is chanting, ‘We want Mo!’ Or when you’re warming up, they’re saying the same thing. You just gotta deal with it. Go out and pitch the game.”
Associated Press photos