Hiroki Kuroda takes pressure off Yankees, rotation and Joe Girardi

Hiroki Kuroda throws to first base during the

Hiroki Kuroda throws to first base during the first inning of a game against the Chicago White Sox. (June 30, 2012) (Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

David Lennon

David Lennon has been a staff writer for David Lennon

David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since

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Brian Cashman had no way of knowing at the time just how important the Hiroki Kuroda signing would be for the Yankees on that night of Jan. 26, a date remembered more for the ill-fated trade of Jesus Montero to the Mariners for Michael Pineda.

Now he knows.

As does everyone else involved with the Yankees, a team that found itself approaching crisis mode this past week after the stunning losses of CC Sabathia (two weeks) and Andy Pettitte (two months) on the same Wednesday afternoon

When things got even messier, thanks to Thursday's ninth-inning bullpen meltdown and a Friday blowout so gruesome that outfielder Dewayne Wise made his major-league pitching debut, there existed the potential for some real discomfort at the Stadium Saturday. And we're not talking about the stifling 93-degree temperature.

Had Kuroda been crushed into powder by the White Sox, as Adam Warren was the previous night, the upcoming grind through Tampa Bay and Boston would have sent people into an early July panic -- and Cashman might have been frantically dialing up potential trade partners.

But Kuroda allowed the Yankees to exhale with seven scoreless innings, highlighted by a career-best-tying 11 strikeouts, and also gave them a reason to believe things actually might be OK as they tread water waiting for Sabathia's return after the All-Star break.

"Just keep going," Joe Girardi said. "A day at a time. I think people realize there's still a lot of talent in that room."

One of those talented pieces is Kuroda, who earlier this season was dismissed as another National League pitcher who couldn't survive in the crucible of the AL, where deeper, more powerful lineups rule.

Factor in that transition, then consider the additional pressure of joining the Yankees, an environment that recently chewed up and spit out A.J. Burnett, who is 9-1 with a 3.31 ERA for the low-profile Pirates.

The challenge is real, and it probably helps explain why Kuroda began the season 3-6 with a 4.56 ERA in his first nine starts. With 34 strikeouts and 20 walks in 531/3 innings during that stretch, Kuroda clearly lacked confidence, and opponents teed off on him for a .281 average.

"I think definitely there is truth in that," Kuroda said of the need for an adjustment period, as relayed by his interpreter. "But throughout my career, I've always felt that pressure no matter where I played. So the fact that I'm playing for the Yankees didn't make any difference."

But Kuroda also had a new $10-million contract to justify, and that sort of ancillary detail can affect a player between the lines regardless of where the stadium is located.

Check out the numbers after Kuroda shut down the White Sox in Saturday's 4-0 victory. In his last seven starts, he's 5-1 with a 1.65 ERA. In those 49 innings, Kuroda has 46 strikeouts and 11 walks and opponents are batting .202.

The Yankees badly needed Saturday's outing. They already had rushed up D.J. Mitchell from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Plus, Girardi made it sound as though Cory Wade was shattered after being hit hard Friday and needed a few days off to collect himself. Girardi also made a not-so-veiled reference to David Robertson's rib recovery being "tricky" despite a perfect eighth inning from him Saturday.

When Girardi was asked if Kuroda understood the need to provide some distance that afternoon -- who didn't, really? -- the manager shrugged it off.

"I don't ever want them to think about the bullpen," Girardi said. "Let me think about it."

That's what got the Yankees in trouble Thursday, when Robertson expressed dismay at being used to put out the fire in the middle of a combustible ninth inning and served up the game-losing home run. But Girardi had a much easier go of it Saturday thanks to Kuroda, who again demonstrated that he is capable of moving to the front of the rotation while Sabathia and Pettitte take a seat.

"There are great pitchers that we're missing and I thought it could really have a negative effect," Kuroda said. "But the only thing I could do on the mound is to pitch my game and do as much as possible to help the team win."

For now, that's plenty.

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