NEW YORK -- The contingent of players from Nippon Professional Baseball continues to grace the Yankees' lineup. And right now, the Bombers need them more than ever.
Hiroki Kuroda won his first game in exactly a month, 4-3, against the Pirates on Sunday in the opener of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, and Masahiro Tanaka will try to continue his own phenomenal personal winning streak against the Cubs on Tuesday at Wrigley Field.
Even the aging Ichiro Suzuki was back in the starting lineup in Sunday's Game 2 against the Pirates, and with a single, he now has 2,763 hits in his pursuit of 3,000 in the Major Leagues. Ichiro had been sidelined this week because of a stiff back.
The trio includes an almost certain Hall of Famer, the most highly pursued Japanese pitcher in history and a veteran right-hander who has now won 71 big league games in seven seasons with the Dodgers and Yanks. It has created a tremendous support system for the 25-year-old Tanaka.
"Obviously, it's a big help to have two of the best players in the history of Japanese baseball around," Tanaka said on Sunday after the Yankees split the doubleheader, losing the second game, 5-3. "Their presence means a great deal to me."
The Yankees spent $175 million to sign Tanaka this past January. The record seven-year deal included a $20 million posting fee paid to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka's former NPB club. He is 6-0 for the Yanks and 34-0 in regular-season games on both continents since losing his last one on Aug. 19, 2012.
That streak will come to an end at some point, but the Yankees are hoping it doesn't happen at Wrigley.
"I don't think about it," Tanaka said. "The record I have is something that I had in Japan. That's something different from what I have over here, so that's how I look at it."
Putting the Tanaka deal into perspective, in 2001, the Mariners paid what was then a record $13.25 million posting fee to the Orix BlueWave for Ichiro and then signed him to a three-year, $14 million contract. He's currently earning $6.5 million on the back end of a two-year, $13 million deal he signed in 2012 with the Yankees.
Kuroda, as a full-fledged free agent, signed a three-year, $35.3 million contract in 2007 with the Dodgers, and re-signed with the Yanks this past Dec. 7 for $16 million.
Tanaka is earning $20 million this season, making it a total of $42.5 million on the 2014 books for the three stars.
The trio comes to the ballpark and travels with three separate interpreters. They are rarely seen interacting in the clubhouse. Kuroda, though, said he talks often with Tanaka about pitching.
"We're both starting pitchers, so we spend a lot of time talking in the dugout and stuff," Kuroda said.
"If he's available on the bench, we also talk about different stuff," Kuroda said. "I ask him about hitters' psychology in certain situations, and that's a good learning experience for me."
For his part, though, Ichiro says there is little interaction.
"They are pitchers," he said. "If they were outfielders, it might be different."
Ichiro is dealing with his own situation. Even before the nagging injury, Ichiro's playing time had been limited this season, considering the number of high-paid, big-name outfielders the Yanks have on the roster. He's batting .356, but he's had 21 hits in only 59 at-bats this year. At that rate, Ichiro won't reach 3,000 hits until he's in his mid-40s, if at all. He's 40 now.
A lefty hitter, if the back holds up, Ichiro is sure to see more time at least against right-handed pitchers with Carlos Beltran on the disabled list because of a bone spur in his right elbow. Beltran, a switch-hitter, is scheduled to see Dr. James Andrews on Tuesday for a second opinion. If the decision is made to have surgery, Beltran could be out for as long as two months. He had 128 at-bats in 33 games before he went out.
That should give Ichiro ample time to play.
"We'll go day by day with him," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Hopefully, when he wakes up, he'll feel good. I don't believe he has a chronic back issue, but whenever a guy has one, you have to wonder how he's going to feel the next day. We'll find out and see where we are Tuesday."
When asked about the injury, Ichiro tapped the back of his head and said he's trying to forget about it.
"I felt good enough to play today," he said. "That means I should be good enough to play [on Tuesday].
To be sure right now, considering all the injuries to starting pitchers, Tanaka and Kuroda are the veteran foundation of the Yanks' rotation. Michael Pineda, who is on the DL with a right shoulder injury, threw a bullpen session on Sunday. The news on CC Sabathia wasn't particularly positive. He returned to the ballpark on Sunday after having a cortisone/stem cell injection in his degenerative right knee and even Girardi wasn't optimistic.
"How does he move forward from here? It's going to be more than a 15-day DL, I can tell you that," Girardi said about Sabathia, who would have been eligible for activation on May 26. "When will we get him back? I don't think anybody really knows, because this is something that isn't done very often."
That leaves the high-flying Tanaka, the 39-year-old Kuroda and a cast of underlings. Kuroda struggled through six innings on Sunday, almost giving back a 4-1 lead before leaving the game for a bevy of relievers, who preserved his third win of the season and first since April 12. In his start before that Monday against the Mets, Kuroda did blow a 4-1 lead before being yanked from what turned out to be a 9-7 loss.
Kuroda said his inconsistency could be attributed to the fact that his "mechanics and command may not be as good as last year."
But he's healthy, and right now, Kuroda and Tanaka are what the Yankees have.
"They're the last line of defense, and right now, they're the veterans of the group in a sense," Girardi said. "Even though Tanaka is a rookie, he still has been a starter for a while in his career and knows what he needs to do. I was pleased with Kuroda's performance. We got four runs early and made it hold up."