Hiroki Kuroda isn’t just the best pitcher on the Yankees right now. He might be the best pitcher in the American League.
The 38-year-old came through for the Yankees yet again Friday night, hurling eight shutout innings in a 5-0 victory over the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium.
Melky Cabrera led off the game with a sharp double to right field, but Kuroda didn’t surrender another hit until Edwin Encarnacion’s one-out single in the seventh. He allowed just those two hits, struck out five, walked only one, and improved to 6-2 with a 1.99 ERA on the season.
"It’s a night where I think he had all three [pitches]," said manager Joe Girardi. "He had a very good fastball, a very good slider and a very good split. ... He was just really, really good."
The Blue Jays (17-25) might be in last place in the AL East, but they arrived in the Bronx having won four in a row, and having scored 10 or more runs in three straight games.
But they looked baffled by Kuroda, despite the fact that they had already faced him twice this season. And the first-place Yankees (26-16) did more than enough at the plate, with two-hit nights from three rather unlikely sources: Brett Gardner, David Adams and Austin Romine.
"All of my pitches were pretty good today," Kuroda said. "And that led to a good outing."
That’s the kind of answer you usually get from Kuroda -- short, understated. Sure, part of it is because of the language barrier -- everything we get from him comes through a translator. But you get the sense that’s his style anyway. Body language can reveal plenty about a person, too.
Girardi was asked what he has learned about Kuroda since he joined the Yankees last season.
"He’s pretty calm," Girardi said. "He does smile a lot, and he does laugh a lot. And that’s the one thing that you really don’t know about a player is his personality.
"I can do all the preparation that I do and understand what a guy’s got. I’ve not been surprised by his stuff, because we looked at him, and when we played against him I was prepared with what he had. But his personality, he’s easy to be around."
He’s easy to root for, too. When asked to evaluate his season thus far, Kuroda offered even fewer words than usual.
"It’s been good, so far," he said.
The truth is, it’s been much better than that. Kuroda has made nine starts, and allowed three runs or less in each and every one. He was a hard-luck loser on May 7, giving up two runs over seven innings in a 2-0 loss to the Rockies. His only other loss came in his first start of the year, when he exited after just 1⅓ innings after being hit on his pitching hand by a line drive.
In his other seven starts, Kuroda has six wins and a no-decision -- a no-decision after giving up one run in 7⅓ innings against these same Blue Jays.
"He’s been so good for us," Girardi said. "Just the innings that he’s giving you, and he’s giving your bullpen a lot of times the night off to where you can use them in the other games. The quality starts that he’s given us -- he has been outstanding. The way he left us last year, he’s just picked right up and continued to impress."
The only three starters with better ERAs in the American League -- Felix Hernandez, Clay Buchholz and Hisashi Iwakuma -- are all in the prime of their careers, age-wise. But Kuroda is defying Father Time, and having his best season in the big leagues.
It does make you wonder, can he keep getting better? How many more seasons might he be able to pitch?
Kuroda chuckled when asked about his future. “I don’t really have the luxury to think ahead," Kuroda said. "All I think about is, treat the next outing as my last."
Odds are, it’ll be a good one.