Yankees need a "Hiro" to save the dayWith AL East lead gone, Bombers turn to Kuroda to right the ship
Twelve weeks and 40 wins later, the Yankees woke up in St. Petersburg this morning with that 84-day streak over, knowing that tonight’s series finale against the Tampa Bay Rays is truly, as the cliché goes, a must-win game.
Tuesday night’s 5-2 loss to the Rays, combined with the Orioles’ win over Toronto, left the Yankees tied for first place with Baltimore and just 1.5 games ahead of third-place Tampa Bay in the standings…and that’s the “good” news.
The “bad” news is that with matching 76-59 records, the Yanks and O’s are not only tied for the AL East lead, but also tied with Oakland for the two American League Wild Card spots, with the Rays 1.5 games behind and the Angels (73-63, 3.5 back) and Tigers (72-63, 4 back) breathing down their collective necks.
And so, it is indeed a must-win Wednesday in Tampa, as if the Rays complete the sweep tonight, the best the Yankees can hope for is a Baltimore loss that would keep them a first-place team – and even then, depending on how the Athletics fare against the Angels, they’ll barely be a wild card leader as well, just a half-game up on Tampa Bay for the right to play baseball past October 3.
The Yankees and manager Joe Girardi are frustrated with their recent swoon, as many have mentioned in post-game interviews over the last week or so; the fans are frustrated, as evidenced by an increasing amount of boos among those at the Stadium last weekend; and even the front office has grown frustrated, as managing partner Hal Steinebrenner told the New York Post on Wednesday.
Tonight, at least the former half of that above group has a chance to vent some of that frustration, and on the mound will be the man who, if not the ace, has been the Yankees’ stopper in the second half: Hiroki Kuroda.
While Kuroda’s overall record (12-10), the team’s record in his 27 starts (15-12), or even his second-half mark (4-3) may not be gaudy, the rest of the numbers suggest that he has been the team’s best pitcher over the last eight weeks.
Since the All-Star break, Kuroda has pitched into the seventh inning in all 10 of his starts, with eight of those outings bringing quality starts and his last outing (an 8.1 IP, 4 ER performance against Baltimore last Friday) was a quality one when he left it. He has allowed just 20 earned runs in 75.1 innings pitched in those 10 starts (a 2.39 ERA), with a full quarter of that earned run total coming in his first post-break start – a game that the Yankees still won 6-5 over the Angels – and has struck out 52 batters against just seven walks.
Simply put, Kuroda has been the rock of the rotation in a second half beset by injuries, and so it seems only fitting that it’s the 37-year-old Japanese righty who will be tasked with what is, as of now, the Yankees’ biggest game of the year.
Kuroda’s opponent, Matt Moore (10-8, 3.58), is no stranger to big moments; he made his Major League debut last September in the midst of the Rays’ epic comeback run to the Wild Card, and then pitched seven innings of two-hit shutout ball against eventual AL Champion Texas in Game 1 of the ALDS – a game that marked just his second career start.
Of course, the Yankees still do hold their fate in their own hands, as their remaining schedule is very favorable; after tonight’s Tampa finale, they head to Camden Yards for a four-game weekend set with the Orioles, then play 16 of their final 22 against sub-.500 clubs in Boston, Toronto, and Minnesota, with three-game home sets against Oakland and Tampa Bay being the lone exceptions.
Since the beginning of the divisional era in 1969, the Yankees have made the postseason each of the last 15 times they have entered September in first place, but how they handle that remaining schedule will determine whether the Bombers raise their 17th AL East banner, earn their 17th playoff berth since the advent of the Wild Card, or sit at home in October completely – a notion that no one would’ve seen as viable when they held a 10-game lead in the AL East seven weeks ago.
At least for tonight, it’s up to their “Hiro” to save the day.
Follow Lou DiPietro on Twitter: @LouDiPietroYES