David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Yu Darvish narrowly missed pitching against the Yankees in this series, but he still had one important detail to take care of during his first visit to the Bronx. So before Monday's opener, the Rangers' rookie -- and former Nippon-Ham Fighters sensation -- found Hiroki Kuroda in the outfield during batting practice to pay his respects.
Owner of a $60-million contract, Darvish turns just 26 Thursday, and it is customary among the younger Japanese players to take the first step toward greeting their elders. Kuroda may be 37, but with the two on opposite ends of the career spectrum, he showed Darvish Tuesday night that age is nothing but a number.
Kuroda held the two-time AL champs hitless for six innings before Elvis Andrus smacked the first pitch of the seventh for a single that Jayson Nix barely smothered with a diving grab. The no-hit bid squashed, Kuroda still was recognized with a loud ovation from the 44,533 fans, and probably a few claps from Joe Girardi as well, en route to a two-hit shutout in the Yankees' 3-0 win.
"Probably our best pitching performance this year," Girardi said.
It definitely felt that way. Just three days earlier, the Yankees had switched into survival mode upon learning that CC Sabathia would spend a minimum of two starts on the disabled list because of elbow inflammation. They already had pushed back Andy Pettitte's return to mid-September, and the 40-year-old lefthander raised a red flag Tuesday in suggesting another setback could cost him the rest of the season.
Through it all, the Yankees have shrugged at every disturbing revelation. On Monday, David Phelps and Derek Lowe combined to outpitch Ryan Dempster in the Yankees' 8-2 win over the Rangers. Then it was Kuroda's turn.
With the win, he improved to 5-1 with a 3.03 ERA against teams with a .500 record or better since June 8, according to Elias. That's something to remember six weeks from now as Girardi formulates his playoff rotation.
"He's thrown the ball so well for us that I expected he'd go out and give us a good start," Girardi said. "I didn't really have any curiosity how he's going to do compared to some other nights."
When this season began, there was some concern whether Kuroda could handle the switch from the pitcher-friendly NL West to the AL East, which crushes them like empty soda cans. That's no longer a question. Kuroda is now 11-8 with a 3.06 ERA in 25 starts and also has showed the Yankees they can lean on him during these trying times. He hung tight to a scoreless tie for six innings Tuesday night before Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira each went deep.
"I believe that tenacity pays off at the end," Kuroda said through his interpreter. "Even if you throw a no-hitter, it's only one win. I was trying to get the win."
Kuroda was part of a Yankees' instant rotation makeover that also involved trading for Michael Pineda on the same January night. Signing Kuroda to a one-year, $10-million deal was considered the less significant of those two moves, but that snap analysis could not have been more wrong.
Despite some early struggles, Kuroda has become the most reliable starter in the rotation, surpassing Sabathia only because he's made every one of his turns this year. Before Tuesday night's game, Rangers manager Ron Washington drew comparisons between his blossoming star, Darvish, and the resurgent Kuroda. "Just competing and having some adversity will finally make that light come on," Washington said.
With Sabathia and Pettitte in limbo, and the growing pains of both Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes, Kuroda has become the stabilizer for a team trying to lock down the AL's top seed.
"Eventually, your depth is tested," Girardi said. "You start to have issues with that."
Those issues have yet to surface for the Yankees, and Kuroda stifled any of that percolating concern for at least another night.