The Yankees knew Masahiro Tanaka could pitch. What seems to have truly impressed them since spring training is Tanaka’s calm and steady demeanor. Scouting reports told of his talent, but Tanaka’s ability to handle pressure – intense scrutiny from two different continents, no less – has been eye-opening, and perhaps just as important as his devastating splitter.
For evidence, look no further than today’s fourth win in his first six starts. He fell behind early, burned through 43 pitches in the first two innings, and acknowledged afterward that none of his pitches were particularly sharp The end result? Another seven-inning start with no walks when Tanaka retired 12 of the last 13 batters he faced — including the last two on strikeouts — in a game the Yankees badly needed to win in order to keep a deflating losing streak from getting significantly worse.
“He’s a top-of-the-rotation starter, and that’s kind of what you expect from guys like him,” catcher Brian McCann said. “It’s hard to believe he’s only 25 years old. I feel like I keep saying that. This guy’s got some poise, competes every time he’s out on the mound, and gives us everything he’s got.”
The Yankees had lost three straight for the first time this season, and their offense went down in order the first three innings while Tanaka allowed a home run, a two-out RBI single, then another homer. It was time for Tanaka’s winning streak to finally come to an end and for the Yankees to reach a new low, except that Tanaka never let things get out of control.
It wasn’t bend don’t break, it was bend and then dominate (even without his go-to split being as effective as usual).
“He finds a way to make adjustments and hang around, in a sense,” manager Joe Girardi said. “… Understanding what he needs to do off the field to be successful is probably just as important as knowing what he needs to do on the field to be successful, because you bring it to the park with you every day, and if there’s frustration or other things going on in your life, it can affect how you perform on the field. But his embracing everything has been important.”
Tanaka’s numbers have been undeniable — his 51 strikeouts are the fifth-most for any pitcher through his first six major-league starts since 1900 — but Tanaka’s poise has been perhaps the most surprising and crucial aspect of his early success. Yes, he has talent — the Yankees have known that for years — but he also has a presence.
“I thought that some of the hits that they got went through holes that our defense wasn’t there,” Tanaka said. “But told myself, can’t lose myself just because of that and try to keep myself intact, and that’s basically what I did out there. … I feel all of the experience that I have gone through kind of led me to who I am right now.”
• As good as Tanaka was, the Yankees offense also showed some life today, and it started with Mark Teixeira’s fourth home run in five games. “It’s a very good sign,” Teixeira said. “I really didn’t know what to expect in the beginning of the season. End of spring training, I didn’t necessarily feel great, so to get some results now, it’s a good sign.”
• Teixeira’s homer came two batters after Jacoby Ellsbury led off the fourth inning with the Yankees first hit of the night. Rays starter Jake Odorizzi sent the Yankees down in order the first turn through the order, then four of six reached base to start the fourth. “A lot of us having seen him,” Ellsbury said. “but I thought we kind of locked in our approach. Kind of relaxed once we got that first hit out of the way. Tonight was timely hitting, a lot of big hits with runners in scoring position.”
• Ellsbury had another three-hit game, including the game-tying RBI single in the fifth. He’s had at least three hits six times this season. He’s had at least two hits 11 times. “I can always picture doing better,” Ellsbury said. “But yeah, we’re playing well as a team. It’s a good environment. Just happy to come to the yard each and every day and put on a Yankee uniform. But there’s always room for improvement.”
• Go-ahead home run belonged to Kelly Johnson, who homered for the first time since April 12. All four of his home runs have come at Yankee Stadium this season. He hasn’t played much lately, but Johnson said he’s been able to stay sharp in the cage. “Not at all a problem,” he said. “It’s to be expected a little bit. It’s a long season and you know opportunities are going to come. … Just being able to get in the cage and continuing to work like you’re going to play every day (has helped). Nothing simulates game action, pitching, and all that, but you do the best you can.”
• Ichiro Suzuki’s terrific start continues. He went 2-for-4 and has hit safely in nine of his 11 starts this season. He’s hitting .395 when in the starting lineup and has seven multi-hit games this season. This was his first two-double game since last April 19 in Toronto.
• Although Tanaka treated it as a non-issue, McCann said he thought that first comebacker — the one that hit Tanaka on the ankle — might have had some impact on those early innings. “I think after the third inning he really settled down,” McCann said. “I think him getting hit in the ankle affected him more than he let on for us to believe, but he settled down there, got all of his pitches working, and pitched deep in the ball game.”
• Even though he was at 113 pitches after seven innings, Tanaka was scheduled to go back out for the eighth inning before the Yankees scored some runs and got some breathing room. Girardi said he wanted Tanaka to face just one batter that inning — he thought Tanaka was pitching well and wanted him to face Matt Joyce — but after getting those two extra runs, Girardi decided to go straight to Dellin Betances.
• Betances on coming into a three-run game in the eighth inning, essentially serving as the setup man for the day: “I feel like the last couple of times out, I’ve gone in good situations. Today was a little later in the ballgame, but I feel comfortable. My confidence is where it needs to be right now. I was just glad I was able to go out there and do a good job.”
• Preston Claiborne closed out the win with his third scoreless appearance of the home stand. He’s allowed one earned run in 7.2 innings this season. I really thought he might be on the verge of a DFA out of spring training, but he’s been awfully good since getting a chance to return to the big leagues.
• Since 1900, these are the only MLB pitchers with more strikeouts than Tanaka (51) through their first six starts: Kerry Wood (58), Herb Score (57), Bub Feller (54) and Stephen Strasburg (53).
• One other Tanaka note: He’s allowed seven home runs this season, and six of them have come in the first four innings. Three have come in the first two innings. Today’s second homer, the Wil Myers home run in the fourth, just barely got out.
• Speaking of Myers, he has a hit in all 12 of his career games at Yankee Stadium. That’s the longest such streak by any player to begin his career in any version of the Yankees’ home park. The kid’s good.
• Final word to Girardi: “I think it’s important (to bounce back after last night). I think it’s also really impressive. It’s a pretty resilient group, a veteran group that understands you’ll have games like last night. It’s extremely frustrating at the time, but every day is a new day. That’s the great thing about our game. It was important.”
Associated Press photos