Everyone in the Yankees’ organization was sitting on pins and needles leading up to Masahiro Tanaka’s first start in over two months, but according to his pitching coach and his catcher, there were clear signs before the game’s first pitch that their ace was feeling good.
“His warmups were really good,” pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. “The (simulated) games, in the last one the warmups were O.K. But today, there was a difference. You could see it right away with the force in which he threw the ball and the quickness to his arm – all of the things that you saw before he went on the (disabled list).”
Tanaka passed his biggest test since being diagnosed with a partial tear in his UCL in July with flying colors, holding the Toronto Blue Jays to one run over 5 1/3 innings in the Yankees’ 5-2 win.
He did it on a limited pitch count and declared after the game that he came away “pain-free.”
“I thought he was great,” catcher Brian McCann said. “He looked the same. Hopefully, (Monday) his elbow responds well, but as far as the difference between today and what he did early on, it was nothing.”
Tanaka and the Yankees aren’t out of the woods yet, as Rothschild and others pointed out, but for now, this was a huge step in the right direction. Tanaka effectively used all of his pitches and went deeper in the game than the Yankees could have hoped for on just 70 pitches.
Barring a setback between now and then, Joe Girardi said that Tanaka will start again on Saturday.
“I was able to go pretty strong today, so I’m relieved,” Tanaka said. “I feel that I was able to do all of the things that I wanted to do.”
• What impressed Girardi most about Tanaka’s outing? “Efficiency,” he said. “When you’re efficient like that, then your control has to be pretty good. And talking to Mac, he said his split was the same, his slider was the same, everything was pretty much the same. The first pitch was 92 (mph), which I don’t know if I was really prepared for that, so that was encouraging to me, too.”
• Rothschild talked a lot about how he didn’t see any trepidation from Tanaka. It was as if he didn’t miss a beat. “Just his presence,” Rothschild said. “It didn’t bother him that he hadn’t been out there in awhile and he has complete confidence in what he’s doing, and then everything else follows suit. His command of his pitches, the ability to dissect the hitter when he needs to – he has a great feel for what pitches to make at the right time.”
• Tanaka allowed singles to the first two batters that he faced, but pretty much everything from that point on was encouraging. He responded by getting Edwin Encarnacion to ground into a 6-4-3 double play and striking out Dioner Navarro. “He made good pitches early in counts,” Rothschild said. “First inning, the fastball was a little sprayed. They were in the zone, but not where he wanted them. But after he settled down, he made some really good pitches.”
• How did Tanaka’s elbow feel today, compared to his last start on July 8? “Obviously way better today,” Tanaka said. “I don’t remember exactly when, but gradually as the game went on, I guess I forgot about it.”
• Some were pointing out on Twitter that Tanaka was throwing less splitters and more curveballs today, but he said that was just coincidence. Both Tanaka and McCann said that there were no discussions of limiting how many splits he threw. “Simply because my curveballs were pretty sharp today, so that’s why I was throwing that a lot,” Tanaka said. “It’s not just the split; basically, I wanted to go out there and check all of my pitches.”
• Although he was overshadowed by Tanaka, McCann also had a big day. He hit his 21st and 22nd homers of the season, and with the way that the Yankees lineup is currently constructed, they sure needed it. He’s had his ups and downs, but right now it’s hard to deny that he’s the most feared hitter in the order. “It felt good,” McCann said. “I got some pitches to hit, and I was able to knock in some runs.”
• Brett Gardner also homered — his 17th of the season — and it was a milestone for the team. Gardner’s solo shot was the 15,000th home run in franchise history. “I wasn’t sure,” Gardner said. “I knew a few days ago we were a couple away, within four or five. I wasn’t sure if it was the one I hit or the one McCann hit. So that was pretty cool. It’s definitely something I’ll never forget.”
• Four games into his final homestand, Derek Jeter has four straight multi-hit games. He didn’t reach safely in either of his first two at-bats, but he singled to right in the fifth and hit a sharp double down the left field line to drive Gardner in during the seventh. He also stole his 10th base of the season. He became the first Yankee at age 40 or older to have four consecutive multi-hit games. “He’s hitting the ball with more authority, obviously,” Girardi said. “He’s pulled some balls, as well. That hit that he got (in the seventh) that put us ahead 3-1, that’s a huge hit in that situation.”
• Ichiro Suzki also had a multi-hit game, as he leads all Yankee regulars with a .285 batting average this season. I tweeted about this earlier, but even if Ichiro continues to play beyond this season, it almost certainly won’t be in pinstripes. Jeter is obviously receiving tons of attention, and deservedly so, but Ichiro is another all-time great who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He just happens to be on the same team as the most popular player in the game. “When we started the season, we had kind of a crowded outfield and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, or how many starts (he would make),” Girardi said. “I told him in spring training, ‘You’re going to get starts,’ I just couldn’t tell him how many. He’s done his job.”
• Final word goes to Girardi, who spoke about his team fighting until the end. The only bad news for the Yankees to come out of today is that the Kansas City Royals won, meaning they still sit four and a half games out of the playoffs with seven to play. “They’ve done it during periods of the year, we just haven’t been really consistent during the course of the year,” he said. “I think that’s been the frustrating thing for all of our guys, but you could look at it two ways. You could be upset about it, but what I love about it is that they haven’t quit. They’re still fighting because there’s still a chance. That’s the best part about it for me.”
Associated Press photos