Kuroda feels butterflies before home opener
After long wait, Yankees excited to christen Stadium for 2012
NEW YORK -- As Hiroki Kuroda prepares for a first day working at his new office, the Yankees right-hander has a pretty good idea of what to expect from a season in the Big Apple.
"A lot of people, a lot of cars and a lot of Japanese restaurants," Kuroda quipped.
That suggests Kuroda understands the microscope he will face on Friday as he heads to the center of Yankee Stadium, tapped to serve as the starter for the home opener against the Angels.
The mound in the Bronx can be the friendliest place in the city or the loneliest, depending on what the scoreboard says, and Kuroda admits feeling some nerves as he prepares to slip the pinstripes on for a regular-season game.
"Rather than being excited, I'm more worried about how I'm going to perform," Kuroda said through an interpreter.
"Since I've never pitched at Yankee Stadium, I'm a little bit preoccupied. But I try to do my best and have the best outing possible."
Kuroda, 37, is no stranger to pressure situations, which was one factor in why the Yankees coveted his services for years before they finally were able to land him with a one-year, $10 million contract in January.
Compared to the transition Kuroda needed to make in 2008, coming to the Los Angeles Dodgers from Japan's Hiroshima Carp, the hurler believes that stacking up against the American League's lineups will be less dramatic. Pitching in Yankee Stadium's homer-friendly conditions also doesn't faze the perennial innings-eater.
"I try not to have that get to me," Kuroda said. "I signed with the Yankees, and that was all part of the package."
The very early returns, coming off Kuroda's solid spring, weren't great -- but then again, little went right for the Yankees as a whole in their season-opening series against the Rays at Tropicana Field. Kuroda took a loss in New York's second game of the season, allowing six runs (four earned) in 5 2/3 innings, and he hopes for better results as the Yanks play the first of 81 contests this year along 161st Street.
"It's definitely an honor," Kuroda said. "Because of that, I really have to do the best I can. I think I will."
After Wednesday's 6-4 extra-inning victory over the Orioles in Baltimore, Nick Swisher mentioned how it had been strange to open the season in such close proximity to George M. Steinbrenner Field. Earlier in the day, captain Derek Jeter offered similar thoughts.
"Opening the season in Tampa seemed kind of weird, almost like we were still in Spring Training because we never left," Jeter said. "We're looking forward to it. It's been a while since we've been there."
Jeter would never make an excuse about not being ready to play winning ball, but the point was understandable. For all the pomp and celebration of the spring, trotting out guest instructors from Yogi Berra to Ron Guidry to Goose Gossage (and, briefly, Andy Pettitte), the games simply didn't count.
Perhaps the Yankees felt some residual effect of that until they got out from underneath the Trop's rings of catwalks and the oatmeal-colored roof. That won't be the case on Friday.
"I can't wait," manager Joe Girardi said. "It seems like we've been gone forever. I think we're all anxious to get back and play at home, in front of our home crowd. We're fortunate. Wherever we travel, we still have a lot of fans, but home is still home."
As they enter Yankee Stadium, a ballpark that does not bear The Boss' name but wears his fingerprints and ideals deeply, there can be no mistake of the expectations. There is history to be honored, no matter how recent the successes, as proved by the invitation extended to Jorge Posada to throw a ceremonial first pitch just months following his retirement.
But there is a future to be considered as well, looking no further ahead than October and a schedule that will have been simple eyewash if it doesn't end with the Yanks celebrating in a pile somewhere. It's time to start moving in that direction.
"It just never seems like the season officially gets under way until you have the home opener," Jeter said. "That's how I've always felt. It's special. It's fun. It's a great atmosphere. It's something that we all look forward to. We usually get at least a couple of Opening Days over the course of a season, but it just doesn't feel like it gets under way until we get the one at home."
Kuroda is not the only newcomer suiting up in white for the first time in the Bronx. The Yankees figure to have designated hitter Raul Ibanez, who was on the losing end of the Yanks' last World Series victory and joked, "If you can't beat them, join 'em," in their lineup against the Angels' Ervin Santana.
Rookie David Phelps, a relief revelation thus far with five strikeouts in three perfect innings, is also getting his first taste of the festivities after coming up through New York's farm system. Catcher Chris Stewart, relievers Clay Rapada and Cory Wade are also new to the Yankees' Opening Day scene.
"It will be good when you see those boys seeing the Stadium, seeing the Stadium packed, the noise and everything that comes with New York," closer Mariano Rivera said. "It's wonderful. We have a lot of guys that will see that for the first time."
Lining up on the first-base line and doffing a cap bearing the interlocking "NY" should be old hat by now for a player like Rivera, whose first home opener saw Pettitte beating the Royals through a driving snowstorm back in 1996.
The weather is expected to be much nicer at game time on Friday -- sunny and temperatures in the high 50s or low 60s -- but the game's greatest closer expects that the memories come flooding back all the same.
"I always look at the home opener like it's my first one," Rivera said. "I love it, I enjoy it, I love the game and I love to compete. This one will be just like the others; just go in there and have a good time."