Hiroki Kuroda #18 of the New York Yankees leaves the...

Hiroki Kuroda #18 of the New York Yankees leaves the game against the Minnesota Twins in the fifth inning. (April 18, 2012) Credit: Jim McIsaac

The highest praise a team can bestow on a starting pitcher is, "He keeps us in the game." With the Yankees lately, though, the starters have been keeping the team in suspense, and putting the relievers in the game too early and often.

"I think the guys are going to straighten it out, I do," Joe Girardi said after a 6-5 loss to the Twins Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium. "But right now I think our bullpen is somewhat taxed."

Aside from Hiroki Kuroda's gem in the home opener on Friday, the starting pitching has been spotty at best, and last night, Kuroda wasn't nearly at his best. He made it only one out into the fifth, he dug a four-run hole in the first inning that the Yankees never escaped and he added to a situation that is threatening to be an early crisis.

"It's really too early. We're not going to be in panic mode," catcher Russell Martin said, having seen Kuroda give up two long home runs to Justin Morneau and leave in the fifth with a 6-4 deficit.

True, it is too early for panic, but it is not too early to seek help. So with Brett Gardner going on the disabled list with a bone bruise and an elbow strain (from making a catch Tuesday), the club is not going to replace him with another outfielder, but with a relief pitcher, righthander Cody Eppley.

So there is a little bit of a sinking feeling, which was more than you could say about Kuroda's trademark pitch, his sinker, Wednesday night. He didn't have command of it and, as he added through an interpreter, "I didn't have my other pitches, either."

Five of the first six Twins who faced him got hits, and four scored, two on a shot to right by Morneau (3-for-4). It was the first time Kuroda had faced Minnesota, having been with the Dodgers since coming over from Japan.

"I'm not going to make that as an excuse,'' he said. "I'm a professional baseball player and when I go on the mound, I'm there to win, but I couldn't do that today."

It was more like the first of his three starts, a loss at Tampa Bay, than his second, an eight-scoreless innings beauty.

"Before I was able to get into my rhythm, they were really aggressive," Kuroda said. "In the past outings, I was able to go to other pitches and make adjustments. I tried many things today but I was unable to make those adjustments."

The Yankees were aggressive, too, from beginning to end, at least at the plate. Just as Kuroda was booed in the first and fifth, Andruw Jones -- Gardner's last-minute replacement in left -- heard it for the casual way he tossed the ball back, allowing Alexi Casilla to get an easy double in the eighth despite slipping on his first step out of the box.

"I didn't see him fall down, so I thought it was an automatic double," Jones said. "Nobody yelled 'second' or anything."

Robinson Cano had a double and a home run, and Derek Jeter homered in the ninth against Matt Capps. Mark Teixeira hit a long fly to right, which fell just short and ended the game. "A hair lower, and we're still playing right now," Teixeira said.

Instead, it was a win for veteran Jason Marquis, a Long Island native and Staten Island resident, starting for the first time as a pro in the Bronx. "Growing up as a Yankee fan, it has always been a dream to play in this type of atmosphere," said the pitcher who worked only five innings, but kept his team in the game.

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