For the second time in a week, New York Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda will be asked to come up big, taking the mound tonight for Game 3 of the ALDS against the Baltimore Orioles. No big deal, really, considering this is probably the biggest and most pressure-packed stage Kuroda has ever pitched on, with millions of unforgiving Yankees fans and hundreds of scrutinizing New York media personalities waiting to pounce at the slightest misstep.
Piece of cake.
The good thing is, this isn’t uncharted territory for Kuroda. During his 2008 rookie season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Kuroda pitched well in both of his starts during the NLDS and NLCS, making a name for himself as a Japanese import who could handle himself on the big stage. And even this year during his inaugural tenure with the Yankees, Kuroda has been asked to be the stopper/secondary Ace during crucial stretches of the season – getting the win against the Seattle Mariners after being swept by Oakland A’s; to avoid an early September sweep against the Tampa Bay Rays during the pinnacle of the division race; to close out the season in a must-win game against the Boston Red Sox. Lucky for the Yankees, Kuroda turned into the anti-AJ Burnett and delivered all three times.
Kuroda matches up well against the Orioles, who will have a tough time against his sinker if its…well, if its sinking. It normally sits in the 90-94 MPH ranger and induces a ton of ground balls, something that neutralizes the homer-happy O’s lineup. He has had some minor success against the Orioles this year (15.1 IP, 1-1, 2.93 ERA), and pitches well enough at home (132.1 IP, 11-6, 2.72 ERA). But the Orioles bread and butter is putting the ball in the air, and they are a very dangerous lineup inside Yankee Stadium (.304/.360/.497).
The key for Kuroda is to keep his sinker down and throw strikes. This may be the most banal and elementary statement in the history of mediocre baseball analysis, but it’s true. Because, much like the Yankees, the Orioles thrive on mistake pitches—the Yankees and Orioles are #1 and #2 respectively in home runs this season. But unlike the Yankees, they are not as patient at the plate (23rd in the league in OBP), so if Kuroda can get ahead in the count and keep hitters off-balance, he will be in a better position to generate a strikeout or force a ground ball.
Doesn’t sound too difficult, does it? For the sake of sanity, let’s hope that little ‘bad’ stretch in September is just a blip on Kuroda’s performance radar.
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