David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BALTIMORE - Not only is success fleeting, it's fragile, too, and the Yankees got slapped with another harsh reminder last night when Hiroki Kuroda had to be ushered off the mound by trainer Steve Donohue in the third inning.
The first thought that sprung to mind was an Andy Pettitte flashback from last June, when an innocent-looking one-hopper off the bat of Casey Kotchman cracked his left fibula and cost him more than two months.
For Kuroda, it was Manny Machado's comebacker that smacked him on the right calf in the second inning -- and yet he wasn't removed until the third for what was later described as a bruise.
"Like how it got Andy last year, you get concerned," Joe Girardi said afterward. "But it's all muscular. That should be sore a little bit tomorrow and the next day, but that will go away."
The Yankees must pray that's the case. Kuroda has become the team's de facto ace, the last remaining Yankees starter without lingering questions about his velocity, durability or consistency.
Before Wednesday night's series finale at Camden Yards, his 1.99 ERA was second only to the Red Sox's Clay Buchholz (1.78) and it dropped to 1.64 in his nine starts after a Yankees' loss.
But the Orioles beat up Kuroda with a pair of homers in the first inning to take a 3-0 lead and Preston Claiborne stuck him with two more earned runs by teeing up Matt Wieters' three-run blast after his exit. By the time Kuroda was icing his leg in the clubhouse, his ERA had ballooned to 2.67.
It's no small consolation Kuroda still appears to have his health. The Yankees can handle a bad night. Losing another significant player such as Kuroda would hurt. A lot.
Girardi said he'd be "shocked" if Kuroda missed a start -- but the Yankees were fortunate he didn't do any further damage to himself by favoring the leg.
"I guess it was more of a precaution," Kuroda said of his removal. "If I pushed myself I might have continued to pitch."
With the Yankees hemorrhaging players since spring training, he pushed it too far anyway -- or was permitted to do so -- on the watch of a manager that normally is much more obsessive about such things. Judging by the impact, it looked as if Kuroda should have been done immediately.
Better safe than sorry, right?
Only this time Girardi, with Donohue beside him, let Kuroda throw four or five warm-up pitches before choosing to let him remain in the game. That in itself was odd for a manager who usually doesn't take such chances, and without the benefit of an X-ray or MRI, it's impossible to know the full extent of an injury while still on the field.
Plus, Kuroda wasn't having a great night, anyway. And sending him out for the third just made it worse. A leadoff double by Adam Jones and a base hit by Chris Davis quickly finished Kuroda, who grimaced as he attempted to stretch his back after the Davis single. The back was fine, but his ERA was not after Claiborne's cookie to Wieters.
Kuroda was hurting after the game, but he expects to make his next start, which is a huge relief. The Yankees have 11 players on the DL, down from a season-high 13, and the current group currently includes two starters in Andy Pettitte and Ivan Nova.
Ok, so maybe the Mets aren't the most formidable outfit these days. But it't still the Subway Series, and weird things usually happen -- as if enough strange stuff hasn't been inflicted on the Yankees already this season.
This is the second time Kuroda has been forced to leave a game after getting struck by a batted ball. In his first start of the season, Kuroda took a hot shot off his pitching hand, but still made his next scheduled turn.
Since then, the Yankees have pitched up to their expectations, with Kuroda leading the way. They entered Wednesday night with a 3.52 ERA, second to the Rangers (3.48) in the AL. Trimming their DL number could wind up being just as crucial.
The Yanks lost Wednesday night, but knowing that Kuroda would be OK took away some of that sting. As bad as things have been, they know one unlucky bounce can always make it worse.