Before CC Sabathia hurt his knee, before Michael Pineda went down with a shoulder injury, and long before Masahiro Tanaka tore his elbow ligament, Hiroki Kuroda finished the month of April with a 5.28 ERA. He was 39 years old, he’d been brutal down the stretch last year, and it was worth wondering whether Kuroda had finally run out of steam. For a moment, he was actually one of the Yankees more significant rotation concerns.
Since his second May start, thought, Kuroda’s had a 3.43 ERA. At a time when the Yankees rotation has desperately needed some sort of stability, Kuroda’s been basically the exact same source of consistency that he was the past two years.
“Some of the other years he’s been here, his April has been a little bit inconsistent,” manager Joe Girardi said. “So I felt like maybe he’s going through the (typical) April. He didn’t have his arm strength, didn’t have a slider. There was a little bit of a concern about that, but you saw it come around in May which put that all to rest.”
This rotation has been a stunning source of strength for the Yankees, and much of the credit has gone to the replacement starters. The Yankees have been kept afloat by the arrival of Shane Greene, the trade for Brandon McCarthy, the return of Pineda, the scrap-heap addition of Chris Capuano, the short-term boost of Chase Whitley, and the injury-shortened improvement of David Phelps.
In all of that, Kuroda has been overshadowed, but he led the way in tonight’s win to snap this three-game losing streak. He’s won his last three decisions, and he’s gone at least six innings with no more than two runs in each of his past four starts. Kuroda faded down the stretch the past two seasons, but this year he seems to be at his best near the end.
Kuroda said he’s been throwing fewer pitches between starts all year, and he skipped a bullpen heading into this start. He’s just trying to stay strong and avoid that familiar slide.
“Especially last year, I didn’t have a good month of September,” he said. “So I just wanted to change that, and I just wanted to contribute to my team. … I don’t know exactly what’s working, to be honest with you, but because I have to do my everyday workout to get my work in, and because I cannot skip a rotation turn or start, I just want to make sure I stay active.”
Kuroda has pitched into the sixth inning in 13 of his past 14 starts, and the last time he allowed more than four runs — earned or unearned — was way back on April 25.
“He just had another start that he’s had all year long,” Brian McCann said. “I feel like he’s been so consistent day in and day out, pitch after pitch. He just keeps making them.”
Standing at his locker postgame, Martin Prado sounded frustrated but at least a little bit optimistic. He considered the MRI largely precautionary, and he said a day of nothing but treatment seems to have done at least some good for his strained left hamstring.
“I think we made a little progress today,” he said. “We’ll see how I respond tomorrow. We did everything we could today to make some progress. … Tomorrow we’re going to, I heard, we’re going to do some activities. Hit and do everything normal to see how I react.”
Seems unlikely that Prado will play tomorrow, but he seems to think this should be — or at least could be — a fairly short-term issue.
“I know that I’ll probably miss just one or two days and not the rest of the season, so I was trying to be smart about it,” he said. “I don’t feel it walking. I feel, actually, normal. But when you’re playing, it’s not like I’m going to say I’m going to play 50 percent. I have to go 100 percent or I can’t play. We’ll see tomorrow. I’ll try to do everything I can to get back in the game.”
• We’ll get into all the good things the offense did in a bit, but first: the first-inning rundown debacle. “Gardy did not get a good jump and he has to stop,” Girardi said. “Jeet had third base easy. Gardy has to stop there, and running into two outs — I wasn’t real happy about it, but we made up for it and that mistake didn’t cost us dearly, fortunately.”
• If you missed the play, it was a double steal, and the Red Sox threw to second instead of third. Because of his bad jump, Gardner stop short of the bag, tried to get into a rundown to let Jeter score, but Jeter never broke for home, ventured too far off third base, and the Red Sox ultimately threw over to get him out. They then fired to second, and Gardner was out as well. Just brutal.
• Before the game, Kevin Long actually talked about the fact the Yankees have run themselves into too many outs this season. “How many times have you seen it happen this year where we’ve run ourselves out of an inning or we do something like that?” Long said. “It’s happened 8-to-10 times. That’s a lot.” When it happened again, Girardi addressed the Yankees base running issues. “Sometimes it’s overaggressiveness,” Girardi said. “You look at the one we did last night, it’s not picking up the runner in front of you. It’s not like these guys aren’t experienced, and they know what they need to do. Sometimes it’s just a matter of playing too hard and trying too hard (that causes the team) to make mistakes.”
• On the offensive bright side: Brian McCann. He has homered in a career-high three straight home games. He matched his career-high with four hits, something he’s now done 11 times (last time was July 6 of last year). “I was covering both sides of the plate, working counts and swinging at strikes,” he said.
• McCann’s now hit 17 home runs this season, and 15 of them have come at Yankee Stadium. Two other players in franchise history have hit 15 of their first 17 Yankees home runs in home games: Joe Sewell in 1931-32 and Oscar Gamble in 1976. That’s according to Elias. Oddly enough, I did not know that off the top of my head.
• Jacoby Ellsbury had a triple and a sacrifice fly and is now hitting .415 with two doubles, two triples and four home runs in his past 14 games.
• Dellin Betances struck out two batters in a scoreless eighth inning. He now has 122 strikeouts in 81 innings this season and has a good chance to be the Yankees season leader in strikeouts while pitching the entire season out of the bullpen. He’s tied Goose Gossage for the second-most reliever strikeouts in a season (Gossage did it in 134.1 innings in 1978). The record is 130 set by Mariano Rivera in 107.2 innings 1996.
• Also a bunch of strikeouts tonight for Kuroda, who tied a season-high with eight strikeouts. He also did that in May against the Angels. This was his fourth career start of at least seven innings with at least eight strikeouts and no walks. He did that once in 2008, once in 2009, and twice this year.
• Both Kuroda and Girardi had kind words for McCann’s ability to work with Kuroda through these strong outings. “He has a great idea what the pitchers stuff is and how it equates to getting each hitter out,” Girardi said. “Sometimes you can say, ‘Well, (the batter) is not a good changeup hitter.’ Well if you don’t have a changeup, that becomes an issue, so you have too find another way to get hitters out and I think Brian is very good at knowing what he needs to do with Hiro and the type of stuff he has and figuring out how to get outs.”
• Because Detroit lost, the Yankees gained a game and now trail by four games for the second wild card. “It’s impossible not to watch (the scoreboard),” Girardi said. “It’s human nature. You watch it all year long. We’re baseball people, that’s what we do. There’s always that curiosity, but obviously you know what’s going on.”
• Final word goes to McCann: “It’s big. At this point, our mindset here is to just win as many games as we can. We’ve got one month to turn it on and we plan on doing that.”
Associated Press photos