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YORK -- In retrospect, it should have been obvious. Hiroki Kuroda is practically built to pitch in the American League, and even in the American League East.
He's big and he's durable. He's calm and in command on the mound. He throws strikes with four pitches. He gets left-handers out, along with righties. He has plenty of stuff, even if he doesn't light up the radar gun in the mid-90s. And he's seen the big stage on numerous occasions.
So while many Yankees fans derided or dismissed the addition of another National League pitcher this winter, and relegated Kuroda to the back of a big-name starting five, the truth all along was that general manager Brian Cashman had made a tremendously shrewd acquisition. The fact that Kuroda signed a one-year deal at a relatively reasonable $10 million was just a bonus.
And yet even at his most optimistic (or pessimistic, depending on how you view it), surely even Cashman couldn't have foreseen just how critical Kuroda would be to the 2012 Yankees. The Japanese right-hander has been the one absolute rock in a rotation that has been in turmoil since practically the start of Spring Training.
Kuroda pitched his masterpiece on Tuesday night, tossing a two-hit shutout against the No. 1 offense in Major League Baseball as the Yanks beat the Rangers, 3-0, at Yankee Stadium. There's scarcely a tougher assignment for a right-handed pitcher than the combination of Yankee Stadium's inviting short right-field porch and the potent Texas lineup. But Kuroda was unfazed.
"It's obvious," said Rangers manager Ron Washington. "He threw a shutout. ... His stuff was good tonight, and he certainly stayed off our barrel and didn't put much in the middle of the plate. You have to tip your hat."
Kuroda was more than unfazed. He was brilliant. Mixing fastballs, sliders and splitters, he made an outstanding lineup look silly. Kuroda fanned five against two walks, getting one feeble swing after another. Texas didn't hit a ball out of the infield until the fourth and made 17 ground-ball outs against five in the air.
It was a master class in pitching by a master pitcher.
"Simple," said catcher Russell Martin, who worked with Kuroda on many nights with the Dodgers. "It's the best I've ever seen him."
And it was badly needed. It's been badly needed all year. Starting with Michael Pineda's spring injury, what looked like one of the Yankees' greatest strengths has been a trouble spot for much of the year. A team with too many starters in January has found itself with too few on more than one occasion.
Now, with ace CC Sabathia injured, someone needs to stabilize New York's rotation. That someone is Kuroda.
Recovering from left elbow soreness, Sabathia is enduring his second stint on the disabled list this season. Andy Pettitte hasn't pitched since June and won't be back on a big league mound for at least another few weeks. Ivan Nova has remained healthy but has an ugly 4.70 ERA that's even worse in August. Phil Hughes has mixed brilliance with frustrating outings like his four-inning clunker on Sunday, and has particularly slumped of late.
Only Kuroda has been healthy and effective all year. Kuroda has been the every-fifth-day rock, racking up innings to take strain off the relief corps and keeping games close enough for the potent New York offense to do what it did on Tuesday.
"He's been really, really big for us, and he could have a number of more wins," said manager Joe Girardi. "He's been the hard-luck guy for us this year where at times we haven't scored him a lot of runs. He's lost some really close games, some 2-1 games. He's meant a whole lot."
There is little doubt that Robinson Cano has been the most valuable Yankee this year. After all, in a league without Mike Trout, he could be the Most Valuable Player in the AL. But the most indispensible Pinstriper in this tumultuous year? That's very likely Kuroda.
A leaky rotation has consequences that range beyond the score after five or six innings on any given day. When the rotation struggles, it increases the strain on the bullpen. The Yanks' bullpen is one of the best around, but with Mariano Rivera down, it's especially essential to minimize the strain on the top relievers.
Kuroda has helped Girardi do just that, and there's every reason to believe he can and will continue to do so.