For the first couple of weeks of his New York Yankees career, Hiroki Kuroda has looked pretty much like what he is: A National League pitcher trying to adjust to the American League brand of baseball.
As adjustments go, it isn't quite as difficult as the one Kuroda has already made in going from playing pro ball Japan to playing it in the United States, or in moving from laid-back L.A. to hyped-up New York City.
Still, it's not easy.
"Obviously it's tougher to pitch in the American League," said Russell Martin, who caught Kuroda as a Dodger and catches him now as a Yankee. "You have nine hitters to face. You can kind of pitch around a couple of guys in the National League and get to the pitcher and that helps out a lot. But you don't have any breathing room in the AL."
And for his first four starts as a Yankee, Kuroda showed some of the strain of that adjustment, mixing in a great start with two horrendous ones and having the misfortune to throw a very good one the same night his countryman, Yu Darvish, was merely transcendent.
But Monday night at Yankee Stadium, Kuroda tried something different: He threw a National League game at an American League lineup, and while it probably won't work all the time, it certainly could not have gone better than it did on this night.
Kuroda's seven-inning, four-hit, one-run gem set the tone for a remarkably clean and crisp 2-1 Yankees victory over the Baltimore Orioles in which the most remarkable number of all was the Time of Game: 2:22.
"That never happens in pinstripes," Martin said. "Never."
In reality, this was a joint effort, a Kuroda/Martin production that culminated in a perfectly executed play at the plate in the seventh-inning that snuffed out the Orioles best, and really only, chance at tying the game.
With runners on second and third, two out and Wilson Betemit at the plate, Martin called upon Kuroda to throw his two-seam fastball -- which Martin refers to as "the splitty" -- and Kuroda, realizing that one of Martin's strengths is his ability to block pitches in the dirt, knew just where to throw it.
"I have complete trust in Russell," Kuroda said. "I know he's going to catch everything I throw."
Only this time, it was Kuroda's turn to do the catching.
The play didn't start out all that well -- the ball bounced a couple of feet in front of Martin and caromed to his left -- but could not have ended better when Martin, quick as a cat, pounced on the ball and delivered a shovel pass to the charging Kuroda, who tagged Nick Markakis before he could cross the plate with the tying run.
"I was a little bit surprised," Martin said of Markakis' attempt to score. "I didn't think the ball was that far. But they were being aggressive right there and Hiro got off the mound really quick. I didn't really have time to think about much. It was just reaction."
That play not only underscored the athleticism of both players, the 29-year-old catcher and the 37-year-old pitcher, but reminded you of how important the right relationship between pitcher and catcher really is.
Martin speaks no Japanese and Kuroda virtually no English, and yet the two have developed a means of communication that goes deeper than words. And in that seventh inning, the two had several meetings on the mound to "discuss" pitch selection and strategy and also, Martin hinted, to insure there was no repeat of the incident between the Yankees and Orioles in the first week of the season, when Martin and Robert Andino exchanged words at the end of the game over suspicions of sign-stealing.
"We just wanted to make sure we were on the same page," Martin said. "We didn't want to throw a wrong pitch or have him shaking and maybe the opposing team relaying the sign. From past experiences you don't want to make the same mistake twice."
Kuroda made virtually no mistakes on a night in which he really couldn't afford to. Aside from Eric Chavez' two-run homer in the second inning, the Yankees' offense could do little with three Baltimore pitchers, managing just five hits all game. Only once did the Yankees get a man as far as third base, and he was stranded there when Raul Ibanez rapped into a double play to end the sixth.
But Kuroda was doing pretty much the same to the Orioles, who scored a run in the second on a walk, a single and a sacrifice fly, and never got a man into scoring position until the fateful seventh.
"He's a consistent pitcher and that's what he's starting to show," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Three out of his last four starts have been very good."
The main difference, according to Martin, is an emphasis on having Kuroda pitch inside more with his fastball, moving hitters off the plate so that they can't wait on his slider, which has a tendency to sometimes catch too much of the strike zone.
"He gets a lot of swings and misses with his slider," Martin said, "But you've got to be careful with that one because if he leaves it over the plate it gets hit."
By contrast, Kuroda's splitter almost never gets hit, because it rarely reaches the plate, and when it does, it generally gets hammered into the ground. On the key play of the game, Martin and Kuroda were walking a fine line, wanting to keep the ball down to Betemit but not wanting it to get away from the catcher, as two previous pitches in the same inning already had. One struck out Chris Davis but the other became a wild pitch that moved Markakis to third, right in line for his up-close and personal meeting with Kuroda at home plate.
"He's got really good control of his splitty. He commands it really well," Martin said. "I think he was just making sure he was burying it."
Kuroda didn't just bury the pitch, he buried the Orioles along with it.
"He's pitching everybody really tough now," Martin said. "He understands the game, he understands matchups and stuff like that. And I think he's starting to understand the American League. It looks to me like he's making the adjustment."