ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For the past two months or so, there were two bets you could safely make when Hiroki Kuroda took the mound for the Yankees.
One, you were likely to see a solid pitching performance.
And two, you were virtually guaranteed not to see anyone on the opposing team hit a home run.
But for his past two outings, the "solid start" proposition was off the board. With his six-inning, nine-hit, seven earned run performance in the Rays' 7-2 victory Friday night, Kuroda has now allowed 10 runs and 20 hits in his last 11 2/3 innings (a 7.71 ERA).
And Friday night, the no-homer zone was no longer in effect; after not having allowed an opposing batter to leave the yard since June 30, Kuroda gave up four -- count 'em, four -- home runs to the Rays, matching his career high.
With the Yankees scuffling to get back into the AL wild card race, this is no time for the pitcher who has emerged as the ace of their starting rotation to suddenly turn into a joker.
"It was really strange," Joe Girardi said. "He just didn’t have his stuff tonight. He kept trying to find it and find it, but I didn’t think his slider was extremely sharp and I didn’t think he had the great command of his fastball tonight. It’s one of those nights he just didn’t have his stuff."
On this night, Kuroda's entire repertoire was at fault -- Jose Lobaton and Evan Longoria hit sliders out of the park, Matt Joyce hit a two-seam fastball and Ben Zobrist a four-seamer -- although the velocity on all three pitches were about the same as it has been all season, slightly over 92 mph on the fastballs and 84-85 for the slider.
Girardi and Kuroda preferred to pin the blame on the all-purpose pitcher's bugaboo, location.
"Today, again, my locations were bad," Kuroda, who dropped to 11-9, said. "If they had ended up as singles, I could have gotten away with it. But I gave up bigger ones, so. If I could have stopped with that one homer, and not given up other homers, then I could have given my team a chance, but I couldn’t do that."
However, since Kuroda is 38 years old and nearing 170 innings thrown this season, his back-to-back poor outings raised an obvious question: Just as the wild-card race is heating up, is Kuroda starting to run out of steam?
But neither Kuroda nor his manager even cared to consider dropping the F-bomb -- "fatigue."
New York Yankees
"I don’t really feel fatigue," Kuroda said. "I’ve being throwing 200 innings the last couple years, and there are times when you have good stuff and not good stuff, so I don’t really think about fatigue right now."
"I think it’s way too early to think about that," Girardi said. "Tonight was a night he just didn’t have his stuff."
Catcher Chris Stewart chose to take some of the blame himself, claiming to have made bad calls on two of the home run pitches. But he also conceded that whenever he threw the ball over the plate, Kuroda was getting pounded.
"He usually gets guys to chase out of the zone, but they weren't chasing tonight," he said. "It’s tough when they’re not chasing and you've got to throw stuff in the zone, and they didn’t miss anything in the zone tonight. They hit him hard."
Brett Gardner, who accounted for the bulk of the Yankees' offense by reaching base four times, tripling and scoring both of the New York runs, had a different view of things from his post in center.
"I guess everyone probably wondered what’s going on when you see Kuroda giving up a homer, and another one and another one and then another one and then maybe even another one," he said. "I’m not sure how many it was, but he’s been so good all year but he’s not perfect, you know? It's disappointing."
And unless he straightens it out soon, possibly fatal to the Yankees' playoff chances.