First pitch: Roberts no longer Brian too hard

ANAHEIM -- Derek Jeter might have been the last person in Angel Stadium to find out that Brian Roberts' True Yankee Moment had arrived, with two out in the ninth inning of a tie game Tuesday night.

Nature had called, you see, at about the same time Roberts' spot in the batting order came up, and so it was that Jeter found himself in Men's facilities just off the visiting dugout just as a baseball was leaving the ballpark after having made solid contact with Roberts' bat.

"I was in the bathroom, so I missed it," Jeter said. "But I heard the crowd. I heard 'Awwww!,' then I heard cheers, and then I heard our dugout. The dugout gave it away."

What Jeter missed was Roberts' first home run since last September 28, when he was a member of the Baltimore Orioles, and his first really big hit as a Yankee, the one that earned them a hard-fought 4-3 victory over the Los Angeles Angels to even this three game series at one win apiece.

"I'm happy for him," Jeter said. "It's a big hit in a big spot."

So big that the ball was retrieved -- a custom for players hitting their first Yankee home run -- and presented to Roberts in the clubhouse, where it sat behind him on a shelf in his locker. It was also Roberts' first major-league home run in any other uniform but that of the Baltimore Orioles.

And it was in a way fitting that Jeter was slightly indisposed at the moment because it adds a little more ammunition to what has been a good-natured joshing relationship between the Yankees new double play combo that began the first day of spring training.

"Me and Jeet were joking during BP today, who was going to be the last one to hit a homer," Roberts said. "So I’m glad to put the pressure on him now."

It's nothing compared to the kind of pressure Roberts had been putting on himself in the early weeks of the season, when the whole thing -- coming to the Yankees after 13 seasons in Baltimore, being handed the everyday second base job after not being able to stay on the field for more than half a season since 2009, and probably most of all, trying to fill the unfillable shoes of Robinson Cano, which had left for Seattle -- combined to have him hitting just a buck-eighty 20 games into the season.

"I think it was more self inflicted than anything," he said of the pressures that contributed to his slow start. "I’ve always said, it’s got to be hard for guys to switch teams all the time, because I was always so comfortable [in Baltimore]. It was kinda like riding a bike every year. You knew everybody’s face, you knew everybody’s name walking into the locker room, people who worked there -- and when you’re doing something new for the first time, it’s different. And certainly when you’re going to New York, and filling in for someone who Played as well as Robbie did, stuff like that, certainly it’s human nature to try a little too hard at times. But I’d rather try too hard than not try enough."

Gradually, Roberts' bat has been coming around -- he had seven hits in the six games leading up to last night, including three in the marathon 10-5 loss to Tampa Bay on Friday night -- and had one of just two timely Yankees hits last night, an RBI single in the fifth that drove in their first run of the game.

But all that, as well as Hiroki Kuroda's masterful performance (7.2 IP, 5 hits, 3 runs but just one eared, and eight strikeouts), seemed destined to be forgotten after the Angels came back to tie the game at 3 when Albert Pujols singled in Mike Trout (triple) in the bottom of the eighth.

The Angels' Ernesto Frieri had just struck out Brett Gardner for the second out of the ninth when Jeter left the dugout and Roberts went to the plate. The first pitch buzzed in at 94 MPH and Roberts sent it out even faster, on an arc into the right-field seats as Collin Cowgill could only gaze up helplessly.

"I didn’t know a whole lot [about Frieri] except that I can read a scoreboard, and he was throwing 95 mph fastballs, so I’d better get my bat ready," Roberts said. "See it and hit it has always been my motto, I guess."

And with that hit, Roberts took some big steps toward erasing the reputation he brought to town about always being hurt -- he had played 150-plus games virtually every season until 2010, when a series of injuries (concussions, hip labrum tear, hamstring pulls) began to severely limit his playing time.

"I can’t put into words, really, how tough those couple years were for me to not be on the field," he said. "And there were things that went beyond just not being on the field; life in general was tough for a while with my concussion stuff. For the Yankees to give me an opportunity to come here and say that they really wanted me to play often, as much as I could, that was a huge step for them to go out on a limb a little bit. To be able to get out there on a regular basis so far and feel pretty good, I feel like I’m starting to swing the bat better and things are starting to pick up a little bit. I’m having a lot of fun and enjoying it a lot.”

Hiroki Kuroda

Hiroki Kuroda

#18 SP
New York Yankees

2014 STATS

  • GM7
  • W2

  • L3

  • BB7

  • K33

  • ERA4.43

Kuroda a Hiro again: After weeks of struggling, Hiroki Kuroda turned in one of the best performances all season by a Yankee starter not named Masahiro Tanaka. Kuroda worked into the eighth inning and until Trout, after a nine-pitch battle, chased him from the game with a triple off the top of the right field wall, had not allowed an earned run.

Needless to say, it would have been an encouraging performance even if the Yankees had not pulled out a win, because without an effective Kuroda this team's chances to make the playoffs as currently constituted would have been severely compromised.

"He's a vital part of this team," Jeter said. "He's a big part of our pitching staff. We feel good when he takes the mound. Every time he takes the mound, we feel as though we can win some games, regardless of what's happened the time before."

The last time Kuroda faced the Angels, it was bombs away -- eight runs, six of them earned, and two big home runs, by Pujols and Ian Stewart, in 4-2/3 innings. This time, if not for a two-base error by Yangervis Solarte that led to two unearned third-inning runs, Kuroda might have thrown shutout ball and come away with his third victory. Instead, he settled for a no decision; the win went to Shawn Kelley, who allowed the RBI single to Pujols that scored Trout, the run being charged to Kuroda.

“He deserved better, but it’s really encouraging," Joe Girardi said. "His slider was really good again. I thought his sinker was excellent again tonight. I’ve been saying that once he gets his slider going, we’ll see the Kuroda that we’re used to seeing, and he had it tonight.”

Vital Nuno: The Yankees need another strong showing out of Vidal Nuno tonight if they want to head to Milwaukee, and a three-game weekend set with the Brewers, who have the best record in baseball, riding the momentum of a series victory over the Angels. Nuno (0-0, 6.87) will face LHP Hector Santiago (0-5, 5.01), first pitch at 10:05 p.m. Nuno faced the Angels at Yankee Stadium on April 2 and got a no decision, allowing three runs in 4-1/3 innings. The losing pitcher that day? Santiago, who allowed all four runs in a 4-3 Yankees win.