David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BOSTON - The only person with a worse sense of timing Friday night than Hiroki Kuroda was the Red Sox fan who picked the start of the sixth inning to propose to his girlfriend at Fenway Park.
The ring barely made it on to her finger before Alex Rodriguez was announced in the on-deck circle, which caused loud boos to rain down on the otherwise happy couple. A-Rod tends to be a scene-stealer, especially in Boston, so maybe the fifth inning would have been a better choice.
For Kuroda, it was remarkable that he stuck around for that long. Joe Girardi nervously had his newly promoted mop-up specialist, the super-sized Mike Zagurski, prepped and ready as early as the second inning. Then again in the third.
At a time when the Yankees can barely afford a hiccup of any kind, Kuroda gave his team indigestion early with a four-run first inning, and the rest of the evening was spent trying to chip away at John Lackey.
To his credit, Kuroda heroically chewed up innings on a night in which Girardi's shorthanded bullpen was without David Robertson and Mariano Rivera.
But as soon as Girardi took the ball from Kuroda after a leadoff single in the seventh, the Yankees' weakened relief corps turned a 4-4 tie into a horror show. Cesar Cabral's lone contribution was nailing David Ortiz -- then nearly getting hit himself by a baseball thrown by a fan -- and Preston Claiborne essentially ended the Yankees' hopes by serving up a grand slam to Jarrod Saltalamacchia for the 8-4 loss.
Worrying about Kuroda now is a waste of energy. It's obvious he's wiped out, and no one on the Yankees has denied that. There's a reason why starting pitchers skip their in-between bullpen sessions in September, not May, and Kuroda has been in steady decline since mid-August.
In other words, add him to the ever-growing list of things the Yankees must hurdle to get to October. A few months ago, Kuroda was considered the de facto ace of the rotation, a title that later was passed to Ivan Nova, who now is iffy himself with an undefined elbow condition. But with all their missing pieces, the Yankees are forced to trust anyone healthy enough to pick up a bat or baseball.
"It's a club that doesn't feel sorry for itself," Girardi said before Friday night's game. "They understand that injuries are part of the game and you have to overcome it. No one's going to feel sorry for us.
"They've done a really good job of adapting to some different positions, adapting to different places in the lineup, doing whatever we've asked them to do. I think the leadership we have in there helps us."
Disregard the intangibles if you must, but something is keeping the Yankees in this improbable wild-card hunt even as their players keep bowing out of it.
Friday, Girardi learned that Brett Gardner will be lost for the remainder of the regular season because of a grade 1 oblique strain, the least severe of the three categories.
With only 14 games left now, however, it's damaging enough, and it will keep Gardner limited to the possibility of pinch-running duties and maybe an October return to the lineup -- if the Yankees make it that far. That forced Girardi to go to Curtis Granderson as Gardner's replacement Friday night -- both in the leadoff spot and centerfield -- as the manager tried to patch another hole.
But how many holes are too many? At some point, won't all of these injuries, and the strain they place on the dwindling number of healthy players, ultimately bring the Yankees down? When that question was posed to Girardi, he smiled.
"I think that we've tried to do that," he said, referring to the way the team has hung tough even as the DL has multiplied over the months. "I don't think it's what we set out to do in spring training. But I don't know, because this group has been extremely resilient and they just kind of roll with the punches."
After the Red Sox walloped them again Friday night, it's time for Girardi's crew to pop back up, dust off, and get back to work Saturday against Jon Lester. They may have survived one weekend massacre by the Sox last week in the Bronx, but a sequel at Fenway is likely to be more damaging.