Hours before he would watch Hiroki Kuroda flirt with history, manager Joe Girardi offered a prophetic assessment about his veteran right-hander.
“He knows how to pitch,” Girardi said.
Girardi’s words became even more accurate when Kuroda took a no-hitter into the seventh inning before settling for a two-hitter in last night’s 3-0 victory over the Rangers.
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“I had to regroup myself a little bit,” Kuroda said through an interpreter. “But as I always say me having a complete game or a shutout is not really important. The most important thing is for the team to win and that’s what we were able to accomplish today.”
“That was a very good lineup that he shut down,” Girardi said. “To not give up a hit until the seventh inning and to only give up two hits and give us a complete game, it’s probably our best pitching performance.”
The Yankees clinched the victory on back-to-back home runs by Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira in the seventh off Alexi Ogando, but Kuroda was the real star as he threw 109 dazzling pitches.
“Hiro did a tremendous job,” Swisher said. “Tonight it was his night.”
“[Texas is] one of the best lineups in the game,” catcher Russell Martin said. “When you see their hitters taking weak swings it shows his stuff is that good tonight.”
Armed with an arsenal of sinking fastballs, split-fingered fastballs and sliders, Kuroda seemed to know the exact moment to use each one. He walked two but retired 10 straight on 39 pitches before Elvis Andrus broke it up with an infield single leading off the seventh.
Excitement began building in the fifth as Kuroda used his slider to get Nelson Cruz on a foul out, Michael Young on a fly out and David Murphy on a groundout. The excitement perked up more in the sixth when he alternated between sinking fastballs and sliders to get through the inning in 10 pitches.
“I noticed the sound of the crowd with two strikes in the bottom of the sixth,” Girardi said. “They were starting to get into every pitch and I saw that his stuff was very good early with all the ground balls he was getting.”
Kuroda struck out four and ended the fourth and sixth with two of his more impressive pitches of the night. He made Josh Hamilton chase well out of the zone on a 1-2 splitter for the final out of the fourth and then reached 95 mph on a 2-2 sinker that Ian Kinsler swung at even as it dropped at the last moment.
The bid ended mostly due to Andrus’s speed. On Kuroda’s first pitch of the seventh, Andrus hit a ball that required shortstop Jayson Nix to range to his left and make a diving stop. Andrus easily beat out the throw and set up three critical encounters with Hamilton, Adrian Beltre and Cruz.
Kuroda passed those challenges with ease after getting over the initial disappointment.
“I feel bad,” Kuroda said. “I thought I let down all the fans that were expecting a no-hitter. I was able to regroup myself and just focus on every pitch that I threw. I’m just glad that I was able to win.”
Hamilton flied out to right on a slider, Beltre struck out swinging on an outside slider and following a wild pitch that put Andrus on third, Cruz grounded out to second on a fastball.
Kuroda finished his fourth career complete game shutout by throwing 20 first-pitch strikes to 29 hitters. He also fell behind 2-0 to just three hitters and was hitting the high 90s in the ninth inning while carefully going through a lineup with a .276 batting average.
“They have a lot of power hitters, so you have to be careful,” Kuroda said. “So I tried to adjust my pitches according to the hitters.”
“It was pretty much fastball, slider getting ahead,” Girardi said. “Those were his two big pitches. He threw some splits to some left-handers to try to put them away but for the most part it was fastball slider.”
Kuroda’s second complete game also made him the first Yankee to throw two complete-game shutouts in a season since Mike Mussina in 2007. He was the first Yankee to do so against Texas since David Wells on Aug. 21, 1998 in Arlington and threw the first shutout with two hits or fewer since Chien-Ming Wang on July 28, 2006 against Tampa Bay
“We’ve seen him be really good,” Teixeira said. “He’s had an incredible season for us but the kinds of swings and misses he was getting -- nubbers off the end of the bat, pop-ups. When a good hitting team like that isn’t doing anything against you, you know he’s got some special stuff.”
While Kuroda pitched really well against the Ranger lineup, Matt Harrison knew how to work out of trouble. He allowed five hits but stranded eight, including three in the third when the Yankees seemed poised to take the lead on a double and two walks.
Harrison needed one pitch to retire Curtis Granderson on a flyout and allowed three runners the rest of the way. His night ended after Derek Jeter singled with one out in the seventh and Harrison was handed the loss when Swisher crushed Alexi Ogando’s full-count fastball into the right-center field seats.
“I’m so happy,” Kuroda said. “I believed that tenacity pays off at the end and you’ve got to persevere until the end. You got to believe that your guys will back you up and that’s what [I] did.”
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.