By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - Hiroki Kuroda started the season as a rock in the New York Yankees rotation but the righthander showed a few more cracks on Wednesday as the Toronto Blue Jays pounded out a 7-2 win to defuse the Bronx Bombers' post-season push.
With New York starting the night 7.5 games behind the American League East-leading Boston Red Sox and four out of a wild card berth, the Yankees looked to their ace to build momentum to carry them into the final month of the season.
Kuroda came into the series finale against the slumping Jays with a sparkling 2.71 ERA but the 38-year-old Japanese has hit a rough patch just when the Yankees needed him most.
After constructing a solid 10-6 record, Kuroda has not only lost four of his last five decisions but done so in horrific fashion.
In his last start, Kuroda gave up seven runs and was rocked for a career-high four homers against the Tampa Rays. In the start before that he yielded a career-high eleven hits in a 6-1 loss to the Red Sox.
New York manager Joe Girardi's concern now, after a third dismal display, will be to keep what is still a bump in the road for Kuroda from turning into a crater.
"He's struggling a little bit right now ... these guys can't be perfect but we need him to turn it around," Girardi told reporters.
"He's going through a little funk. Every player during the course of the season goes through a little funk.
"You just hope it is not at a time when you can't afford it, but it happens."
Facing AL East tailenders the Blue Jays, a team the New Yorkers have dominated this season by winning 13-of-15 meetings, looked like the ideal game to get him back on track.
Kuroda's August swoon continued, however, and Toronto hammered him for seven runs (five earned) on nine hits in five innings of shaky work.
"This time of the season you have had a lot of innings thrown so there are issues but I have experienced before so I think I will be able to figure it out," Kuroda said through an interpreter.
"Every start is important but to not have my stuff there at this stage of the season is pretty frustrating."
The Blue Jays jumped out to a 4-0 lead in what was an ugly first inning for Kuroda as the Yankees' starter hit two batters, served up a two-run double to Brett Lawrie, while two more runs scored on passed ball.
In second inning, Edwin Encarnacion slammed a towering two-run homer, while Jose Reyes bumped the Toronto lead to 7-0 with a sacrifice fly in the third.
It has been stunning slide in performance from Kuroda, who had been particularly stingy this season with a Major League-topping nine scoreless outings.
Coming into Wednesday's contest, his 2.71 ERA was the fourth best in the American League and he had been one of the more durable performers, tossing at least seven innings in 12 of his last 21 starts.
There has been concern that Kuroda has simply been worn down by a grueling season but both the pitcher and manager were not convinced that fatigue was behind his problems.
"That's always going to be questioned but he pitched into October for us last year and pitched really well," said Girardi.
"Sometimes there aren't reasons. Sometimes guys just aren't as sharp. I'm sure if you broke it down you could find something. It could be (fatigue) but I can't tell you for sure."
Last season the Yankees were not counting on Kuroda to carry the load as much as he has been asked to this season, with C.C. Sabathia (11-11), Phil Hughes (4-13) and the ageing Andy Pettitte (10-9) all boasting ERAs above 4.00.
While Kuroda has not received the fanfare of other Japanese imports such as Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish, he has quietly assembled an impressive body of work that places him among the very best Asian pitchers to have played in the Major Leagues.
After 11 productive but unspectacular seasons in the Japan League with the Hiroshima Carp (103-89), Kuroda decided to go on a Major League adventure by signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2007 and making his debut as a 33 year old.
Now in his sixth Major League season, his career 3.31 ERA is the best among Japanese pitchers while he ranks second in strikeouts (809) and wins (68) behind only Hideo Nomo.
The low maintenance, low-key righthander came to New York from the Dodgers in 2012, signing for $10 million and this season assuming the role as the ace of the Yankees rotation.
This year the Yankees will pay Kuroda $15 million and speculation is that it will cost the New Yorkers $20 million to keep Kuroda in the Bronx for another season.
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)