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Wednesday, March 7, 2012
First Pitch: Konnichiwa, New York!


They’re getting up at 3 a.m. in Japan to watch today’s Yankees game, and not because the Japanese want to see and hear Michael Kay.

Hiroki Kuroda is making his first start as a Yankee, and 7,000 miles away on the other side of the globe, that's a national news event.

Here, however, the interest in Kuroda is more practical than provincial. The Yankees don’t need Kuroda to be an international superstar, and they’re not necessarily looking to sell more Yankee jerseys on the Ginza, although I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.

Quite simply, the Yankees need Kuroda to be a solid, every-five-days starting pitcher for them. Kuroda is the guy Brian Cashman has wanted for a couple of years now, the guy that made him go to Hal Steinbrenner and ask him to take the rubber band off the family bankroll one more time.

Because after you get past the ace, CC Sabathia, the rest of the pitching staff is either too young and inexperienced (Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda, Phil Hughes) or too modestly talented (Freddy Garcia) to be completely reliable.

Like Goldilocks’ porridge, Kuroda seems just right. Even though at 37 he is the oldest member of the starting staff, Kuroda was a proven performer with the Dodgers, a solid and durable right-hander who throws 200 innings a year and puts up double-digit wins with sub-4.00 ERAs. Last year, his 3.07 ERA was more indicative of his ability than the 13-16 record he posted for a mediocre Dodgers team.

Despite their reservations about Japanese pitchers, reservations solidified by their experiences with Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa, and their desire to drastically cut payroll, as typified by their lack of interest in Yu Darvish, the Yankees openly coveted Kuroda.

And without having thrown seen Kuroda throw a live pitch yet this spring, Joe Girardi has already anointed Kuroda his No. 2 starter behind Sabathia.

“I think I’ve got a pretty good idea what I’m going to see, but I still want to see it,’’ Girardi said of Kuroda’s start today against the Tampa Bay Rays. “You’re going to get the kitchen sink. Location. Change pitches. Change speeds. Sink it. Cut. I’ve seen it before but I still want to see it again.’’

In a lot of ways Kuroda is the perfect transitional pitcher for the Yankee staff. Having signed a one-year deal for $10 million in January, Kuroda is both relatively affordable and easily expendable, here today and gone next year, unless he proves himself indispensable. Then, the Yankees could offer him another one-year deal, because as Kuroda said earlier in the spring, he likes to pitch one year at a time and earn his contract, a refreshingly responsible approach to doing business.

His is a veteran presence on a staff that is getting younger, and his familiarity with his catcher, Russell Martin, who caught him in L.A., eases the unfamiliarity of his new teammates. And having him pitch behind Sabathia should lessen some of the pressure on Nova, who will be trying to improve on his 16-win 2011 season, and Pineda, who comes from the small pond of Seattle to the roiling ocean that is New York City.

Kuroda has already pitched in one metropolis, the one on the lower left side of the map, and now he moves to the bigger, more ferocious one in the upper right corner.

The Yankees expect him to perform not like a big-time Japanese pitcher, but like a big-time pitcher. Period.

The Hiroki Kuroda Era in Yankee history is not likely to be a long one, but it figures to be an important one, however it turns out.

And it starts today.

THE QUESTION: How do you expect it to end? How many wins do you think Kuroda will have at season’s end?

ON-DECK CIRCLE: The clubhouse is open from 8:30-9:30, then closes for an hour-long team meeting, followed by BP and the game. As always, I'll be feeding the blog all day. Like the Japanese baseball fans eager to see Kuroda, you, too, can watch this one live, on the YES Network, at the more reasonable hour of 1:05 p.m.