Hiroki Kuroda has become a very important Yankee

Hiroki Kuroda of the Yankees pitches in the Hiroki Kuroda of the Yankees pitches in the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, July 20, 2014. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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Anthony Rieber Newsday columnist Anthony Rieber

Anthony Rieber has been at Newsday since Aug. 31, 1998 and in his current position since July 4, ...

The Yankees went into Sunday's game against the Reds with a chance for a weekend sweep -- a great way to start the second half of the season after finishing the first half with a .500 record. And they had their ace on the mound: Hiroki Kuroda.

Kuroda did his job, leaving with two outs in the seventh inning with a 2-1 lead. But Dellin Betances shockingly gave up a tying home run by Todd Frazier in the eighth.

So Kuroda didn't get the win, but the Yankees did, 3-2, when Brian McCann's ninth-inning pop to short rightfield fell untouched amid three Reds for a fortuitous walk-off single.

Still, Jacoby Ellsbury, who scored the winning run, called Kuroda "the star of the game." Manager Joe Girardi said, "He did a wonderful job today."

Kuroda wasn't supposed to be the star, of course. He was supposed to be a strong third, fourth or fifth starter, a supplemental piece after CC Sabathia and Kuroda's countryman, Masahiro Tanaka, and maybe even behind young guns Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda. But all four of them are injured.

Baseball has a funny way of shifting around the pieces like a game of checkers. Hop, hop, hop, hop and within a short amount of time you go from one side of the board to the other.

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"You know, I've thought about that more than once," Girardi said. "The last guy standing in a sense is the oldest guy."

And at one point, the 39-year-old Kuroda hadn't even known if he wanted to pitch this year. How seriously did he contemplate retiring in the offseason? Very much, he said. "I did consider retirement -- hanging up the jersey," Kuroda said with an uncharacteristic idiomatic flourish through his translator.

But now he begins the second half as the Yankees' No. 1 starter after a 2013 season in which he suffered through a serious swoon in August and September. The Yankees will try to manage his workload, but Girardi said, "We're fighting to get in the playoffs and we're going to have to pitch him."

On Sunday, Kuroda announced his intentions by striking out the side in the first inning on 11 pitches (10 strikes). His splitter was Tanaka-like.

Kuroda allowed one run, which was unearned, in 62/3 innings. He gave up three hits, walked two and struck out six in lowering his ERA to 3.88.

With no days off until July 31, he will make his next two starts on regular rest. That might not be the worst thing, however. This year, he has been best with four days off (5-1, 3.65 ERA), a little worse on five (1-3, 4.04) and, until Sunday, ineffective with six-plus days (0-2, 6.75).

Speaking of rest . . . while Brian Cashman has said starting pitching is his top trade-deadline priority, he might want to consider getting another outfielder. That's because another of Kuroda's countrymen, Ichiro Suzuki, looks cooked.

Forced to play more than the Yankees wanted because of Carlos Beltran's elbow injury and Alfonso Soriano's fade to oblivion, Ichiro was hitless in his last 18 at-bats before stroking a single in the sixth.

Ichiro is incredibly entertaining, especially when he's climbing the rightfield wall like Spider-Man whenever he thinks there's the slightest chance he can bring back a home run. But the production (.285, no home runs, 11 RBIs in 214 at-bats) just isn't there.

One idea: When Cashman completes the seemingly inevitable Cliff Lee deal with the Phillies, ask them to throw in Marlon Byrd. Or maybe the teams can pull off one of those Dodgers/Red Sox massive salary-dump deals from a few years ago: The Yankees get Lee and Cole Hamels but also have to take Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Jonathan Papelbon, A.J. Burnett, Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley. The Phillies get Yangervis Solarte, Zelous Wheeler and a signed Derek Jeter "Re2pect'' memento.

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Just kidding, of course. Not even the Yankees could afford that much payroll. Probably.

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