Hiroki Kuroda was a key reason the New York Yankees were able to stay in the playoff chase while injuries mounted.
As the veteran has struggled to find that form in recent weeks, his teammates may need to pick him up in the opener of this pivotal series against the archrival Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Friday night.
The Yankees (79-68) took the final three games of their four-game set at Baltimore ahead of their trip to Fenway, pushing the Orioles down the wild-card standings while pulling themselves within one game of fellow divisional nemesis Tampa Bay for the second AL spot. New York posted a 6-5 victory Thursday, with Brendan Ryan scoring the go-ahead run in the ninth on a wild pitch by Baltimore closer Jim Johnson.
"It's important,'' manager Joe Girardi said. "We need to continue to win and we need to continue to take series if we want to play in October.''
Equally important would be getting Kuroda (11-10, 2.99 ERA) right. He had a seven-start stretch in which he went 4-1 with a 0.94 ERA, defeating counterpart John Lackey and the Red Sox at Fenway on July 20 during that run.
Boston, though, triggered Kuroda's current five-start winless stretch by reaching him for five runs and a career-worst 11 hits in 5 2-3 innings in a 5-1 loss at Fenway on Aug. 17. The right-hander is 0-3 with a 6.52 ERA during his swoon but did show some improvement Sunday versus the Red Sox, allowing two runs and five hits - grinding through six innings with 117 pitches - before leaving without a decision in a 4-3 walkoff win.
"At this stage of the season, fatigue really doesn't matter," Kuroda told the team's official website. "You have to treat it as if this is going to be your last outing."
Overall, Kuroda is 1-3 with a 4.26 ERA in five starts against the Red Sox this year, splitting two outings versus Lackey (9-12, 3.48).
One player who may not be able to help Kuroda is leadoff hitter Brett Gardner, who left Friday in the first inning due to a strained oblique. He will undergo an MRI and his status is uncertain.
"I've never had an oblique issue before,'' said Gardner, 11 for 31 lifetime against Lackey. "The best thing to do is just wait until (Friday) and see what the MRI says. That'll paint a much clearer picture.''
Lackey (9-12, 3.48), who avenged his loss to Kuroda in the Aug. 17 win, labored to another victory over New York on Saturday - giving up a season-high seven runs and eight hits in 5 2-3 innings in a 13-9 final. He is 10-10 with a 4.81 ERA lifetime versus the Yankees, including a 5-3 mark in 10 starts with Boston.
The Red Sox (89-59) continued their march to the AL East title by taking two of three from the Rays, though they were denied a sweep with Thursday's 4-3 defeat. Jarrod Saltalamacchia homered, but Boston was content with a 5-2 road trip.
"You try and win every series. That's the No. 1 goal, and we lost tonight but we took a good two out of three," Saltalamacchia said. "So we'll go home against New York and worry about Game 1, and see what happens after that.''
Kuroda may have some worries facing David Ortiz, who is 7 for 12 with a homer and three doubles in their matchups this year.
Alex Rodriguez, who is 9 for 25 with two homers and four doubles in his last seven games, has been a feast-or-famine hitter versus Lackey. Despite a .183 average and 26 strikeouts in 60 at-bats, five of his 11 hits off the right-hander have been homers.
Rodriguez's batting average versus Lackey is his lowest of the 30 pitchers he's faced at least 45 times.