Hiroki Kuroda is a vision of tranquility on the mound. He never seems unnerved and never seems overwhelmed. Pitch after pitch, and inning after inning, Kuroda keeps pushing forward, doing whatever he needs to do to help the Yankees win.
That calm, determined approach was exhibited as Kuroda fashioned a two-hitter and tamed the Texas Rangers, 3-0, on Tuesday night. The Rangers have scored the most runs in the Major Leagues, but, through nine nearly flawless innings, Kuroda baffled them with his sinking fastball and a nasty slider.
“Probably our best pitching performance of the year,” said manager Joe Girardi.
While Kuroda’s dazzling outing helped give the Yankees an important victory in August, it surely caused them to wonder what it might mean in October, too. If Kuroda can dominate the Rangers, then he should conceivably be able to handle any other lineup because no team has been as powerful. So, on a warm August night, the Yankees could be excused for pondering what Kuroda’s potential impact could be on some cool October nights.
As long as CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte return from the disabled list and don’t have additional injury issues, they would join Kuroda as New York’s first three postseason pitchers. The Yankees would start Sabathia, their ace, in the opener and would probably follow with Kuroda and Pettitte. Aligning the pitchers like that would enable Girardi to split up Sabathia and Pettitte, his two left-handed starters.
After watching Kuroda operate efficiently against the Rangers, I think he should be a significant force in the postseason. Kuroda has four quality pitches with a sinker, a slider, a curveball and a split-finger fastball, and he usually spots all of them with precision. When Kuroda’s four pitches are working, catcher Russell Martin said he has “perfect game stuff.”
That was nearly the case at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, even though Kuroda mostly relied on his sinker and slider. Across six innings, Kuroda held the Rangers without a hit. Elvis Andrus had an infield single to start the seventh and end Kuroda’s no-hit bid, but Kuroda stranded Andrus at third. That was the only Ranger that made it beyond first. Of Kuroda’s 27 outs, 17 were generated on the ground. He has a 1.44 ERA in his last six starts.
But, beyond those glossy statistics, here is why I think Kuroda could be so important in the postseason. He frustrated some excellent hitters. The Rangers barely had any decent swings off Kuroda, who is smart enough to read hitters and adept enough to pinpoint his pitches. When Kuroda whiffed Nelson Cruz with a slider in the second, Cruz swung as if he expected a fastball. When Kuroda struck out Josh Hamilton with a splitter in the fourth, Hamilton unleashed an awful hack. When Kuroda got Adrian Beltre to wave at a slider in the seventh, the pitch had cutting action away from the right-handed batter.
Unlike so many pitchers, Kuroda hasn’t had difficulty transitioning from the softer-hitting National League to the American League. He is 11-8 with a 3.06 ERA and 6.85 walks and 2.15 walks per nine innings, strikingly similar statistics to what he did with the Los Angeles Dodgers a year ago (13-16, 3.07 ERA, 7.17 strikeouts, 2.18 walks). Kuroda has thrown at least seven scoreless innings in six starts, something no other Major Leaguer has done.
How will Kuroda perform in October? There’s no reason to believe that this smart and precise pitcher will suddenly falter. Like other Japanese players, Kuroda is obsessed with focusing on the team over the individual. Still, for the team to succeed, individuals like Kuroda must flourish. Kuroda knows that. He will keep pushing forward, staying calm all the way to October.
Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES