Print and Go Back ESPN.com: New York Yankees [Print without images]

Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Kuroda pitched like an ace in April

By Kieran Darcy

With one month of the season in the books, the Yankees might have a new ace.

It’s not that CC Sabathia pitched badly in April. Hiroki Kuroda has just been that good, and he delivered again in a 7-4 victory over the Houston Astros on Tuesday.

Kuroda
Hiroki Kuroda K'd eight Astros over seven scoreless innings in Tuesday night's victory.
It wasn’t easy, though -- far from it. Kuroda needed 67 pitches to get through the first three innings, wiggling out of trouble in each frame.

The Astros had multiple runners on base, including a runner on third, in each of those first three innings. Yet Kuroda was able to escape without a run crossing home plate.

“Today, like my last outing, my balance was off mechanically,” Kuroda said through a translator. “My release point was off, too. It was a tough outing.”

Yet starting in the fourth inning, Kuroda looked like a different pitcher. He needed just six pitches to retire the side. And he ended up throwing seven scoreless innings, giving up just four hits, with a season-high eight strikeouts and four walks -- all of which came in the first three innings.

In innings 4-7, Kuroda allowed just one baserunner, on Jose Altuve's leadoff single in the fifth. And Altuve was erased on the basepaths when he was thrown out trying to steal second.

What made the difference? Well, it turns out pitching coach Larry Rothschild suggested Kuroda start pitching out of the stretch to every batter.

“They thought it might simplify it a little bit and see if he could get his stuff back,” manager Joe Girardi said. “And he started to find his sinker a little bit; he started to find his slider a little bit.”

“In the middle of the game, Larry suggested to me to start throwing from the stretch,” Kuroda said. “That is actually something that I don’t really like to do, but I followed his suggestion.”

It clearly worked.

Kuroda has won his past four decisions and is 4-1 with a 2.25 ERA on the season.

Since he joined the Yankees last season, this is the eighth time Kuroda has thrown at least seven innings without allowing a run. That ties the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw -- two former Cy Young Award winners -- for the most such starts in the majors over the past two seasons.

“It’s great,” Girardi said of Kuroda’s performance so far this season. “Anytime you can get distance out of your starters, it allows you to use your bullpen different. It allows you to save your bullpen a little bit more for the next day.”

The Yankees, despite dealing with a rash of injuries, finished the month of April with a record of 16-10 -- just two games behind the red-hot Boston Red Sox in the American League East.

Kuroda and Sabathia have been two of the biggest reasons, accounting for half of the team’s 16 wins. The 32-year-old Sabathia is a very respectable 4-2 with a 3.35 ERA, although some people are concerned about the diminished velocity of his fastball. The 38-year-old Kuroda, on the other hand, seems to be getting better with age. Kuroda was 41-46 in four seasons with the Dodgers after coming over from Japan. But he went 16-11 in his first season in New York and looks even better in 2013.

“There were good outings and there were some tough outings,” Kuroda said when asked to assess his April. “But to be able to make the games for my team and contribute to a win, in that sense, it has been a great month.”

There are five months to go before October. And far tougher opponents to face than the Astros.

But Kuroda had never won four games in April before.

His best could be yet to come.