All season long, the New York Yankees have been waiting to race with all their horses. And just when it looked like the barn was finally healthy, their thoroughbred has gone lame.
Hiroki Kuroda, the team’s de facto ace since April, has stunningly fallen apart in his past two starts. After pitching brilliantly for four and a half months, carrying the crippled Yankees on his back, the 38-year-old Kuroda has suddenly imploded just as the load was lightening.
Where he once was a Cy Young candidate, leading the A.L. in ERA on August 12, he is now an unrecognizable cross between a batting cage machine and Phil Hughes. His pitches, not so long ago sharp and precise, are now flat and errant, spilling over the middle of the plate in a manner begging to be clubbed.
Hitters have obliged. Two weekends ago at Fenway Park – where this tailspin began – he was tagged for a season-high 11 hits. Then, it just seemed like a blip in the radar, a patch of poison ivy in a field of four-leaf clovers. Now, it appears to have been the early signs of an imminent collapse.
Out for redemption in his next start, Kuroda was smacked around The Trop by the Tampa Bay Rays, surrendering seven runs on nine hits – four of them homeruns. Then last night in Toronto, the Jays preyed on the wounded pitcher for seven more runs and nine more hits. Another homerun allowed last night made it five in 11 innings for Kuroda, this after not allowing one in 57 2/3 innings entering his start in Tampa.
It’s this suddenness of his meltdown on the mound that leaves people searching for answers. There was no warning that this was coming from Kuroda, who, before hitting a wall in Boston, had given up just three runs in his previous 29 innings. His unraveling has happened all at once, the yarn spilling from a tightly-woven ball like Silly String, his season now on the floor in a gnarled heap.
And given Kuroda’s value to the Yankees, it could be the team’s season that comes completely undone next.
As it is, the Yankees are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Their position now is as precarious as ever, and one more slip-up will likely be the fall that kills them. They’re alive now, yes, but after losing two of three against the Jays, the team is on life support.
With Kuroda’s breakdown, the life support may have just gone out. In a summer where the Yankees could be counted on like a used luxury car, Kuroda was the one man who consistently helped this team win. Robinson Cano has had his struggles. Mariano Rivera has too. And we won’t even mention C.C. Sabathia.
But Kuroda, no matter the opponent, no matter the month, has held his torch high. Up until his start in Boston, his summer ERA (June 2 – August 12) was a slender 2.28. And when the going really got tough for the Yanks in July, Kuroda fed life to a dying team with the type of first-class pitching that would widen the eyes of Cy Young himself. In his five July starts, he pitched to an ERA of 0.55.
If there was one reason the Yankees were still in the mix when August rolled around, Hiroki Kuroda was it. Now, of course, there are others standing tall to help fortify a flimsy rotation, namely Andy Pettitte and Ivan Nova. If this were June or July, the resurgence of Kuroda’s pitching mates would be enough to make up for his own struggles, and one man’s fall would be softened by the rise of two others.
But this is late August, the height of a desperate drive to the playoffs, and the Yankees need all hands on deck. Pettitte and Nova together offered hope because they were pitching well on top of Kuroda, providing the Yankees two more legitimate chances to win every five games. Now, with Kuroda crashing, the very reason their improvement was relevant is gone.
The revelations found in Pettitte and Nova now feel hollow. They just don’t seem to matter anymore, and if Kuroda can’t return to form, it will stay that way. For just as two ships have unfurled their sails, the one leading the way has begun taking on water.
It certainly is a microcosm of the team’s season, a year when one player’s return has been unfailingly spoiled by the loss of another, as if this group of Yankees was never meant to be together. Finally, when it seemed the injuries had relented and the clubhouse stables were full, the team’s most reliable, most consistent, most fret-free player has inexplicably fallen apart.
If Kuroda can’t put himself back together, the final game this team plays will be on September 29th, in Houston. (Any season that ends in Houston is an invariably bad one.) For as A-Rod noted a few days ago, the Yankees need wins like oxygen, and now, the man who has administered CPR all year long appears to need it himself.