Masahiro Tanaka has made 14 starts this season.
In the first seven — a sample that includes a disappointing opener and stretches both before and after his disabled list stint — Tanaka had a 2.49 ERA with 45 strikeouts, seven walks and four home runs in 43.1 innings.
In the last seven — a span that included three straight wins before tonight and that saw him initially bounce back from two particularly bad starts — Tanaka’s had a 5.08 ERA with 39 strikeouts, 11 walks and 11 home runs in 44.1 innings.
“Obviously it’s not what we want,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He’s had some really good games and he’s had some tough games. He kept us in the game tonight, we just didn’t do a lot offensively. That’s what we ask our starting pitchers to do, give us a chance to win, and I thought he did that tonight. We know he’s capable of pitching better.”
After from those back-to-back starts at the end June, Tanaka has rarely been terrible. He allowed more than three earned runs in a start only once in the month of July — that was tonight — and he’s pitched into the eighth inning in two of his past four starts, but he he hasn’t been anything close to dominant. He was pretty impressive right before the All-Star break, but he’s ultimately been hitable and beatable.
Velocity has been basically the same as last season, a little higher even, but the results have been uninspiring. Tonight his split, which is supposed to be his best pitch, was erratic. It was bounced in front of the plate or left up in the zone. According to Brooks Baseball, Tanaka threw 26 splits tonight and got five swing and misses.
“I apologize because I’m always giving you the same answer for this, but it always comes down to mechanics,” Tanaka said. “If my mechanics are there, the ball is coming out of my hand more efficiently. That inning when I gave up three runs, that actually had a lot to do with the split. I wasn’t getting that tight downfall that I wanted to. It got gradually better as the inning went on, but that third inning was kind of a dagger.”
Perhaps because of the language barrier, it’s always a bit difficult to get meaningful details from Tanaka postgame. His mechanics weren’t right, but there’s little description of how or why that’s the case. His split wasn’t sharp, but that much was pretty clear from the outside. Is he hurting? Is he compensating? What’s causing the difference in these past seven starts?
“Just being able to dictate the count and being in charge,” Brian McCann said. “Getting strike one. Staying a step ahead. Tonight, we fell behind.”
McCann talked a lot about trying to keep damage to a minimum, and Girardi talked about Tanaka still giving the Yankees a chance to win, but the Yankees consider Tanaka to be their ace, and those aren’t phrases often used when No. 1 starters have their good stuff. Tanaka hasn’t been at his best lately, and at this point, there are only two months left.
• He might be optioned for a fresh arm tomorrow, but Caleb Cotham had a pretty good big league debut. He let an inherited runner score, but only after Didi Gregorius botched a potential double play. All told, Cotham went 1.2 innings with two hits, no walks and four strikeouts.
• That Gregorius error, by the way, was his first since June 21.
• Carlos Beltran homered to give the Yankees an early lead in the second inning. It snapped a 16-game, 54-at-bat homerless streak. Six of his eight home runs this season have come against right-handed pitchers.
• Stephen Drew has a hit in five straight games going 7-for-18 in that span. Tonight was his 14th multi-hit game of the year. … Chase Headley has a seven-game hitting streak. … Didi Gregorius has eight hits in his past three games and is 11-for-23 overall in his career against the Rangers.
• Tanaka’s three strikeouts were a season low while his three walks matched a season high. That’s not a great combo.
• Strong start for Rangers starter Colby Lewis, who has a 2.89 ERA in his past four starts. He’s had a quality start in nine of his past 10 outings. “I thought he made a lot of good pitches with his slider for strikes and then expanding in the zone and throwing it down and in to our left-handers,” Girardi said. “I thought he did a pretty good job with some back door ones as well. I thought Lewis threw a pretty good game.”
• The Yankees snapped a four-game winning streak. They need a win tomorrow to continue their streak of winning six straight series.
• Looking for something more positive about tonight? In Triple-A, Luis Severino delivered another gem with 10 strikeouts and one hit through six innings. Rob Refsnyder made two errors, but Refsnyder, Greg Bird, Ben Gamel, Gary Sanchez, Jose Pirela and Austin Romine each had two hits. Gamel and Bird each homered.
• Really, all of the postgame clubhouse was focused on Tanaka. This game didn’t offer much else for the Yankees. So, for our final word, here’s Girardi with one last comment on Tanaka’s outing: “He really struggled the whole time. Maybe his best inning was his last inning in the sixth, but it was a little bit of a struggle. I think he walked the leadoff hitter and fortunately he was able to pick him off. His command was not great tonight.”
Associated Press photos
First a reminder that we’re doing a chat today at noon. Stop by for a while and we’ll talk Rob Refsnyder’s demotion, CC Sabathia’s solid past two starts, and the Yankees’ approach to the trade deadline. It’s a way to kill some time before the Yankees begin what could be a pretty important three-game series against Baltimore.
The Orioles are four games behind the Yankees in the American League East, and they could be as dangerous as any team in the division if guys like Chris Tillman and J.J. Hardy rebound in the second half, and if the Orioles can find some more production from the outfield corners.
This is the Yankees’ first series against Baltimore since June 14, and these teams don’t play one another again until a pair of series in September.
“Any time you start playing teams in your division when the season’s winding down, all those games are big,” CC Sabathia said.
In the series opener and the series finale, the Yankees face the two lowest ERAs in the Orioles’ rotation. The Yankees have won each of their past four series, and just finished taking two of three against Seattle.
“Baltimore is a similar type of team,” Alex Rodriguez said. “They can it the ball out of the ballpark and they have good pitching.”
Here are the pitching matchups for this series.
RHP Nathan Eovaldi (9-2, 4.50)
LHP Wei-Yin Chen (4-5, 2.78)
7:05 p.m., WPIX and MLB Network
RHP Ivan Nova (1-3, 3.42)
RHP Kevin Gausman (1-1, 5.00)
7:05 p.m., YES Network and ESPN
RHP Masahiro Tanaka (6-3, 3.65)
RHP Ubaldo Jimenez (7-5, 3.29)
1:05 p.m., YES Network and MLB Network
Associated Press photo
Even as he plays almost every day and provides one of the most consistent bats in baseball, Alex Rodriguez talks a lot these days about the value of taking some time off. A four-day All-Star break? There’s value in that. A few games off in National League parks? Keeps him fresh. Even a year long suspension, Rodriguez says, might have had its benefits.
“I don’t know if I needed (the All-Star break),” Rodriguez said after tonight’s game-winning homer. “I felt good coming off Boston, was swinging pretty well, but the rest has been good for me. It was very beneficial when I was serving my suspension. Maybe the four days (helped). So far so good.”
Playing for the first time since Sunday’s win at Fenway, the Yankees were sharp tonight. Masahiro Tanaka made a couple of mistakes to Kyle Seager, but otherwise delivered a strong start. Chris Young delivered two more extra-base hits against a lefty. The infield defense was good and steady.
Then there was Rodriguez, who went hitless in his first two at-bats before singling and scoring the tying run in the fifth inning, then hitting his 19th home run of the season in the seventh. Rodriguez has had a go-ahead RBI in each of the Yankees’ past four games.
“I think Joe (Girardi) deserves a lot of credit,” Rodriguez said. “He’s put me in a situation where I can help the team win. I think the DH job for me has been good because I’m able to prepare differently, and I feel comfortable. … It’s been huge for me, I’m really enjoying it, working hard at it. Every day, I’m just trying to continue with my routine.”
The decision to keep Rodriguez confined to designated hitter — especially in interleague games on the road — has been the source of much discussion, but Girardi seems sold on the idea that keeping Rodriguez out of the field is keeping his body fresh, and Rodriguez hasn’t argued. In fact, he’s gone out of his way multiple times this season to talk about the positive impact of the DH job and the way extra rest has helped him.
“I’ll have to pick some sporadic days off (for Rodriguez), especially as we get into some of the longer stretches,” Girardi said. “And I’ll do that. He held up great the first half, and I expect him to hold up well the second half and be productive.”
Rodriguez didn’t look rusty tonight. He looked rested and ready to push the Yankees division lead to 4.5 games.
“A guy like Al,” Chris Young said, “who’s been around the block a few times, been in every situation, been in the World Series, had a lot of success in a lot of different situations, where you’re able to slow the game down, (is able to) keep things in perspective and come through in big situations.”
• Carlos Beltran went 0-for-2 with a walk in tonight’s rehab game. Even if he catches a flight back to New York tomorrow morning, it’s unlikely he’ll be activated for Saturday’s game. Looks like he’ll return Sunday at the earliest. “I heard that he came out OK,” Girardi said. “I haven’t had a chance to talk about what we’re going to do. It would be pretty hard to put him in the lineup tomorrow.”
• For anyone thinking a trade is in the works because Ramon Flores and Austin Romine were pulled from tonight’s Triple-A game, Brian Cashman said Romine came out because of a thumb issue that was bothering him even before the All-Star break, and Flores was pulled because he was hit by a pitch, but Cashman wasn’t sure how serious it was.
• By the way, Aaron Judge played center field again in that Triple-A game.
• Speaking of minor league guys, I was told tonight that Slade Heathcott is close to playing in rehab games. Mason Williams said he spent all of the All-Star break in New York getting treatment on his shoulder. He’s still a long way from playing in games.
• Tanaka retired seven of his last eight batters after the second Seager home run. “The at-bats against Seager, they were just bad pitches that I threw and he got the most out of it,” Tanaka said. “But other than that, I felt pretty good out there. Pitches were coming out of my hand pretty good, and I was able to pitch the way I wanted to. … I think a lot of the offspeed (pitches) were going from strike to ball, and they were swinging at them, so I think they were pretty good. I want to try to replicate that in my next outing as well.”
• Because he’s a solid evaluator, here’s Rodriguez on Tanaka: “I think he’s just been more consistent lately. His fastball command’s better. I thought his splitfinger got better as the night went on. I think he’s doing a better job of damage control. And for us, especially at home, it’s such a weapon having Betances and Miller at the back of the bullpen, because we know in a tight game like today, one run may be the difference, and it was today.”
• Why pull Rob Refsnyder against a right-handed reliever late in the game? In a tight game, Girardi was trying for a Yankee Stadium home run. He also was pretty sure the Mariners were unprepared for a pinch hitter, but Seattle stalled long enough to get Vidal Nuno ready for a left-on-left at-bat against Garrett Jones. “I was trying to pick up a quick run with Garrett,” Girardi said. “I knew that Nuno wasn’t ready, but by the time they threw over twice and went to the mound and stood there, they got him ready.”
• Even though Refsnyder went hitless, Girardi seemed impressed again. He left Refsnyder in to play defense in a one-run game in the eighth. “He looked pretty relaxed to me,” Girardi said. “Some tough plays. Some really tough plays tonight, and he made them all. Between hops. Slow rollers. Go to your left. Turn a double play, try to turn a double play. There really wasn’t an easy play for him tonight.”
• Refsnyder on his first roll call: “It was pretty cool. You hear about it and stuff like that. Obviously it was the furthest thing from my mind today, but it was nice. It was nice to hear my last name pronounced correctly. It’s rare.”
• Young just keeps crushing lefties, bringing exactly the kind of right-handed balance the Yankees had in mind when they re-signed him. “I’m happy I’m just able to get the opportunity, that’s the main thing,” Young said. “To be able to get consistent at bats, have the opportunity to get out there, try to find a streak to get going,, and if you slow down, still get the opportunity to go out there and find my way out of it. Consistent at-bats has always been the biggest want for me, as a player, and Joe’s given me a lot of opportunities, so I’m grateful for that.”
• Dellin Betances has struck out multiple batters in each of his past eight appearances, matching his eight-game streak from earlier this season. … Andrew Miller is a perfect 19-for-19 in save opportunities, extending his franchise record for consecutive saves converted to start a Yankees tenure. … The Yankees have homered in 33 of 42 home games this season.
• Let’s give the final word to Tanaka, talking about his first seasons playing alongside A-Rod: “I think he knows really how to hit the ball. It seems like once the ball comes off his bat, it just kind of flies. Being in the outfield shagging before games, you can see how well he gets to that ball and lets that ball fly out, so it’s pretty impressive.”
Associated Press photos
This was my plan: Write a blog post about the fact that questions loom over basically every piece of the Yankees’ pitching staff.
After including five pitchers in my previous MVP post, there was really no sense in writing a first-half Cy Young post, so I thought looking at the looming uncertainty would be a good way to address the pitching staff. I came up with four categories and then found a way for most of the key pitchers to fit in one group or another.
But Michael Pineda, who I just picked as the most valuable pitcher on the staff, seemed to fit in every category.
• Health concerns? Obviously. He looks good and strong this season, but anyone who’s gone through three seasons of shoulder issues is going to carry some lingering health questions for a while. Those don’t go away with a healthy half season.
• The potential to be even better? Absolutely. Pineda’s been very good this season, but his 3.64 ERA is basically a full run higher than his 2.63 FIP. If he can string together his occasionally elite starts, he could be a real difference maker in the second half.
• Durability and sustainability concerns? Yep. Pineda could get better in the second half, or you could wither under the weight of his largest single-season workload. Pineda’s on pace to throw more innings than he’s ever thrown in a year, and he’s already thrown more innings than in any of his past three seasons.
• The potential to take on a larger role? Sure. Right now, it’s hard to say who truly leads this rotation. Is Pineda the ace or is Masahiro Tanaka the ace? Which one should get the ball in Game 1 of a playoff series? Pineda has a chance in the second half to take hold of that title and make himself the unquestioned No. 1 starter.
As for the rest of the staff, I’ll put the other key guys into these categories:
Obviously health is a concern for any pitcher, but that concern is especially magnified with Tanaka. We already know his elbow ligament was damaged last season, and he’s already missed a month this year because of a forearm strain and some soreness in his wrist. He’s pitched well, but his health is going to be a concern for a while. I’ll also put Miller in this category only because he’s already had one arm issue this season, and I think there’s always some concern that one arm issue could be a part of something more significant. There’s no real evidence that’s the case with Miller, I just think health is always a concern with someone who’s already coming back from an injury.
Two-fifths of the rotation fall into this category of needing to improve in the second half. Sabathia is the poster child for this issue. He’s been excellent against lefties, and has done a better job providing innings than most of his teammates, but Sabathia’s been awful against right-handed hitters — shockingly bad, actually — and his tendency to let outings get away has been well documented. As for Eovaldi, he gives up a ton of hits, but a lot of that has been relatively soft contact — opponents actually have a higher slugging percentage against Pineda — and he’s done a decent job of limiting damage. Needs to pitch deeper into games, though, and if he could put away a few more batters, that’d be nice, too.
Hard to have many complaints about what these four have done this season. Now the trick is to keep it going through the second half of the season. At this point, Betances is building a track record of this kind of success, but he’s still set the bar awfully high. Nova’s been good since returning from Tommy John, but coming back from surgery could leave him prone to inconsistency (and he was pretty inconsistent even before the injury). Warren has already pitched more innings than in either of the past two seasons, and Wilson’s trying to avoid a regression back to last year’s numbers. There’s little saying these guys can’t keep this pace, but the Yankees need them to actually do it.
Shreve might have already answered this question by stepping into the seventh inning role while Miller was hurt. He broke camp as basically the last guy in the bullpen, but now he’s pitched so well that the Yankees are clearly going to trust him with big outs from time to time. Mitchell really hasn’t had much opportunity to prove himself one way or another, but his arm is good enough to be curious about what he might do. For Capuano, the question is whether he can prove he’s good enough to keep around while Mitchell, Shreve and Warren are capable of multiple innings. I’ve also included two prospects who haven’t been called up yet, because their potential emergence — Severino especially — could make a difference down the stretch. To some extent, you could put guys like Nick Rumbelow, Branden Pinder and (if he gets healthy again) Jacob Lindgren into this group as well.
Associated Press photo
At this point, whenever Masahiro Tanaka struggles, expressing doubts about his health becomess little more than another baseball cliché.
It might be accurate, and it might be relevant, but it’s too obvious to really push the conversation forward. Might Tanaka’s past two starts — with 11 earned runs spread across 10 innings — be related to his bad elbow? Of course. But the Yankees are so thoroughly convinced that he’s healthy they let him throw two bullpen sessions instead of one leading into Friday’s return to Yankee Stadium.
“I haven’t felt like the health has been a thing,” pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. “I think it’s adjustments and a more normal bump in the road. He’s still managed to fight his way through situations. The fifth inning they tied it up in Houston, obviously he had a 6-0 lead and gave it back, but he got us through that fifth inning after they tied it up.
“I think there’s still some tenacity there. I don’t think the competitive side of it (has diminished). The frustration hasn’t necessarily gotten all the way into his competitive nature as it does with some other guys. Right now, you look at the smaller picture. Get through the first inning, make pitches, execute pitches and then go on.”
In 29 Major League starts, Tanaka’s allowed more than five runs only three times. The first was his final start of last season. The others have been his past two starts this season. He has, quite literally, never had back-to-back starts like this.
Not since he came to New York, anyway. Not since he signed the $155-million deal that told the world, this guy is not supposed to pitch like this.
“There’s not a pitcher that’s ever pitched in this league and been any good that hasn’t gone through this,” Rothschild said. “It’s not unusual. It’s just that with him, because of the record he had in Japan and when he first got here, the expectations probably got a little bit unreasonable for him. It’s not unusual. Everybody goes through it, there are adjustments you have to make, and I think he’s going through that period right now.”
With five days off between starts, Tanaka threw two bullpens. In the first, he focused on his fastball. The second was more of a typical side session mixing all of his pitches.
There was a mechanical adjustment involved — working on properly finishing off his pitches — but Rothschild said the Yankees have also talked to Tanaka about pitch selection issues, the details of which Rothschild wouldn’t discuss publicly.
“There’s some frustration, which there should be,” Rothschild said. “As long as that frustration leads into correction and adjusting what we need to adjust, that’s good. I wouldn’t expect him to take it in stride because it’s been a while since he’s had any struggles, really. The good ones come out on top of it, and I expect he will.”
“I don’t know if they’ve changed approach or if they’re more familiar with his style of pitching,” Rothschild said. “If they have (adjusted), then he’s got the weapons to combat that. He’s got the pitches to be able to handle that. It’s more a matter of executing pitches than it is worrying about what hitters have done to change their approach to him.”
Because his elbow ligament was partially torn last season, because the Yankees chose to rehab rather than pursue immediate Tommy John surgery, and because he’s already had a relatively minor injury in his forearm this season, Tanaka’s health will remain a concern and a point of focus for the foreseeable future.
That’s essentially a given; something that goes without saying.
What we’re about to find out — if he really is healthy enough to keep pitching — is whether Tanaka can deal with the first real performance-based roadblock of his Major League career.
“When things turn sideways a little bit, you need to get them straightened out,” Rothschild said. “He’s a good pitcher. At the end of the day, he will be as long as he’s healthy. Whether it happens this time or whenever; this time it would be ideal for it to happen. What I base it on is his approach, his concentration level and his focus — as I do with all the pitchers. If they maintain that, then the ability will play.”
Associated Press photos
Last week, Masahiro Tanaka returned from the disabled list and pitched seven innings on 78 pitches. Tonight, he went seven innings on 87 pitches. If he were a guy the Yankees were willing to let loose for 120 pitches, he might have had a complete game in back-to-back starts. Instead, he’ll settle for his four wins in his past five starts.
And this one came in a matchup against Max Scherzer.
“Obviously I knew who I was going up against today; a good pitcher,” Tanaka said. “Still, I’ve only had one year and a little bit here, so I have to build myself up to being a better pitcher here.”
Only a couple of partial seasons for Tanaka, but it seems Major League Baseball has learned to do whatever’s possible to avoid his splitter. Efficient pitch counts the past two games have a lot to do with Tanaka throwing a lot of strikes and having excellent stuff, but they might also have to do with opposing hitters swinging early to avoid those counts when Tanaka might break out his most devastating weapon.
“I think they probably have a game plan that they want to stay out of that count, and his splitter’s an outstanding pitch,” Joe Girardi said. “It’s kind of like Scherzer. If you’re right-handed, you don’t really want to see that slider, and if you’re left-handed you don’t want to see that changeup. That’s the kind of thing that you go through has hitters, so you look for the pitch that you can hit.”
According to Brooks Baseball, Tanaka threw 16 splits tonight, and 13 of them were strikes. Ten were strikes not put in play. By percentage, Tanaka has thrown fewer splits these past two starts than he’s thrown in most of his other starts, but that might not be an indication that the split isn’t effective. Only that it’s so effective, hitters are actively trying to avoid seeing it by swinging at other pitches earlier in the count.
“When he’s getting ahead early in the count with offspeed and he’s able to save that split for the second time around, he can throw any pitch in any count,” Brian McCann said. “… When he gets you to two strikes, there’s nothing a hitter can really do. You either sit on the split or you don’t.”
Two starts in a row now, Tanaka’s been excellent. Basically just as good as last season.
“Not really surprised,” Tanaka said. “I don’t have that sense of being surprised with my pitches.”
• Key play of the game had to be Ian Desmond’s decision to throw to third base in the seventh inning. Have to imagine he had a good chance of getting slow Alex Rodriguez out at first to end the inning, but third base was closer, and Desmond went that way. Looked like Ramon Flores made a nice heads up play running the bases — coming in at an angle that caused the throw to hit him on the backside — but Flores said that wasn’t the plan at all. “No, I was thinking the ball was going to go through,” he said. “So I was running at an angle, trying to make an angle to go home.”
• So Flores wasn’t trying to get in the way of a throw, he was trying to set himself up for a sprint home if the ball got past Desmond? At least I’m not the only one who thought he’d made the wide turn intentionally to get in the way. “I thought it’s an outstanding base-running play on his (end),” Girardi said. “You tell the guy to read the fielder that’s in front of you and try to get in the way of the throw like Reggie used to. But it’s just a heads up play, he sees it’s going to be a tough play, and that led to a big inning for us.”
• Good running play or not, Flores had another good game. He had three hits, including the one that set the stage for that pivotal four-run seventh. He also made another great play in left field with a diving catch. He’s been a nice player since he got here.
• Wound up not mattering, but the time it seemed Mark Teixeira’s bad read on a fly ball to center might be the biggest play of the game. It was a tied game at the time, and it really seemed Teixeira could have — or should have — scored from third, but he instead tagged up late and then didn’t break for home after Michael Taylor made a diving, sliding play. “It’s a tough read,” Girardi said. “I think what the thought was, he was going to catch it and not fall down. So he was going, in a sense, he was a little bit off the bag because he knew that he’s not going to throw on a tag-up if he catches it on his feet. So it’s a tough read.”
• But after the sliding play, shouldn’t Teixeira have gone home? “You think that he can make it,” Girardi said. “But he’s not 100 percent sure because the outfielder’s not that far out.”
• This was Stephen Drew’s second two-homer game in the past five days. He’s had just four multi-homer games in his career, and two of them have come within a week of one another during a horrific season at the plate. “His hits are extremely productive, is the bottom line,” Girardi said. “He’s had big hits for us.”
• Drew’s first home run was the 1,000th hit of his career. “It’s special,” Drew said. “Being able to play this game, and playing it for a long time, and being able to reach that milestone. It’s special. The Lord’s blessed me with being here as long as I have, and I’ll remember that when I’m done playing. It’s something you’re going to look back on and just be thankful for.”
• Why use Andrew Miller in a game like this? “If the next guy hits a three-run homer, you want to give him a little wiggle room,” Girardi said. “So I want to give him two hitters to get one out before the tying run comes up. And I’m just taking advantage of the off days, and we have not used him a lot in the last five or six days.”
• This seven-game winning streak is the Yankees’ longest since winning seven straight in September of 2012. The last time they wont eight or more was a 10-game winning streak in June of 2012. They’re a Major League best 11-3 in their past 14 games.
• The Yankees have homered in seven straight games and 15 of 17 overall. They have 76 home runs in 56 games and have hit 17 home runs in their past seven home games.
• Tanaka is only the fourth Major League pitcher to get at least 17 wins in his first 26 career games joining Boo Ferriss, Cal Eldred and Steve Rogers. His streak of four consecutive starts of at least six inings and no more than five hits or one run matches the longest such streak by a Yankees pitcher over the past 102 seasons. Last to do it was Orlando Hernandez in 1998.
• Final word goes to Girardi about Tanaka: “Just really consistent. I think he threw 85, 86 pitches. To be so efficient I thought was really important. I thought they were aggressive on him, and I thought he made really good pitches early in the count. … I don’t ever make too much of one outing. I think you try to put together 10 outings and make an evaluation. But obviously it’s great to see him follow it up, but I think his stuff today was as crisp as it was the other day.”
Associated Press photos
Pitching matchups vs. Nationals • 06.09.15
RHP Masahiro Tanaka (3-1, 2.76)
RHP Max Scherzer (6-4, 1.85)
7:05 p.m., YES Network
RHP Nathan Eovaldi (5-1, 4.16)
1:05 p.m., YES Network
Associated Press photo
Masahiro Tanaka is back. But we’re still figuring out what exactly that means.
Does it mean he’s back for the time being, making another Yankee Stadium start tonight before an inevitable return to the disabled list? Or does it mean he’s back to being the front-line pitcher he was last season, mixing a potent-when-necessary fastball with exceptional breaking pitches to be one of the best starters in the game?
Last week’s start in Seattle sure looked like the later.
In his return from a forearm strain, Tanaka averaged 93 mph and topped out at 96 with his fastball. In his previous four starts, he averaged closer to 91 and topped out around 94.
“I guess velocity is important in some aspects,” Tanaka said. “But for me, I look at more of my command of the pitches since I’m being able to locate the ball where I want too. So for me I think that’s more important.”
Sure, reliable command is more important than raw velocity, but velocity surely helps. And last week’s fastball seemed to be a good sign that Tanaka was trusting his arm to hold up.
“As we’ve said, his average velocity has been the same (as last year),” manager Joe Girardi said. “It’s just maybe he hasn’t hit the 95, 96. I’m sure he feels good about it, and he feels better that he knows it’s there, but his average velocity was pretty similar.”
Why the spike in velocity last week? Tanaka said some of it is surely from building arm strength and getting deeper into the season. He also thought warmer weather had something to do with, though it wasn’t especially hot when he pitched at Safeco Field.
Ultimately, the Yankees have known for a while that Tanaka was capable of reaching that sort of velocity. To actually see it, though, was a good sign both for Tanaka’s health and his performance.
“I think there’s maybe a little bigger discrepancy between his fastball and his split,” Girardi said. “He can go up in the zone a little bit sometimes maybe to get strikeouts a little bit easier, (but) that’s not really what he does a lot of. He’s usually a guy that looks to get strikeouts with his split, but the extra velocity makes guys speed up is what it does. It’s not the key to pitching.
“We’ve seen a lot of pitchers be extremely successful throwing 87, 88 — we saw Mike Mussina (who) threw 88 and won 20 games – but it does allow him to do some different things.”
Associated Press photo
Yesterday afternoon, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman stepped onto the field to watch a little bit of batting practice. While he was there, he talked to the media for a while. Nothing particularly new came out of it, but the GM did hit on a number of topics that really matter to this team right now, so here are a few highlights:
On the recovery of Jacoby Ellsbury
“We had a timetable. I don’t think we talked about it too much publicly. He was going to be in one of those lineman-looking braces for three weeks. He’s been doing running and stuff in the brace, I think, with some low-level resistance. Obviously doing a lot of strength work. He’s been working his tail off to make sure his quads and his hammys and everything else are not falling behind. … My update through yesterday is he’s busting his tail and doing a lot of functional stuff, but he’s got to have that brace on for three weeks total and he’s just past week two.”
On the decision to have Michael Pineda skip a start
“We’ve just been talking through it. Tanaka obviously got a time out because of the injury he had, so with the off days that we’ve had, it was: all right, let’s try to make a decision here at least on this front end. There’s other avenues to do it if you got a full complement (and) everybody’s healthy. You can always play with a six-man rotation if Nova’s back and everybody’s in line. We’re just trying to find ways to manage it properly so everybody keeps that full tank of gas and doesn’t have fatigue set in too easily, because once fatigue sets in, injuries can happen.”
On the idea of six starter when Ivan Nova is healthy
“It just depends on time of year, how things are functioning, who’s experiencing what. There’s no strict plan as much as (trying to) find ways at times to give people blows is basically what we’re going to try to do. But how we’re going to do it, we’re not sure just yet. … (Nova)’s going to have one (rehab start) in the Florida State League. If that goes fine, he’ll go to Scranton, weather permitting, and at that point we’ll evaluate. I guess it’s possible (he could be back this month). We did build him up to 75 pitches in extended spring so we can keep him on the clock if we feel it’s necessary, or we can pull him if we need him.”
On the dependability of Alex Rodriguez as an everyday player
“It was unpredictable what we were going to get. I could throw out there about the DH spot, it’s not as demanding and we all know that, but I didn’t have any expectations, let alone playing every day as a DH or being productive. He’s been very, very impressive and obviously helpful.”
On lingering foot concerns with Brian McCann
“I’m just thankful every test was negative. (The wrong orthotic) is more likely than not what was causing the issues. We’ll just swap it out and we’ll be able to go on from there and forget that it happened.”
On lingering elbow concerns with Masahiro Tanaka
“I can only speak for myself; I don’t think about it any more. I just think about if he is going to perform. In his last start, given how it was in his two rehab starts, I just wanted him to be productive. I knew he was around an 85-pitch count, so I didn’t know if we were going to be deep in the pen or not. My God, he was tremendous. I wasn’t worried about health. If something is going to happen, it’s going to happen.”
Associated Press photos
A few random thoughts on the way home • 06.04.15
I doubt there are very many baseball writers who list Oakland as their favorite road city, but I love it out there. My sister moved just outside of Oakland in my second year on the beat, and so last weekend will be one of my favorites of the year. Got to read a bunch of books to my nephew, and for the first time got to hold my little niece. For me, Oakland was the best part of the road trip, even if it was one of the low points of the season for the Yankees.
That dismal Athletics series gave way to a terrific Mariners series, though, and now the Yankees are starting this off day having won seven of their past 10 games overall. They looked pretty good again in Seattle. They pitched well, made some huge plays in the field and got huge hits — huge home runs, even — when they needed them.
Here are a few relatively random thoughts roughly a third of the way through the season.
• Masahiro Tanaka was incredible yesterday. At some point, he was making it look so easy that I think I failed to appreciate it until I looked at the box score at the end of the sixth inning. The guy is really, really good, torn elbow and all. With Michael Pineda outpitching King Felix on Monday, and Tanaka delivering his gem on Wednesday, the bookends of the Seattle series provided plenty of evidence that the Yankees need only make the playoffs to have some shot of making a run at a title. At their very best, Tanaka and Pineda are about as good as any 1-2 combination in the game. With no dominant team in the bullpen, why couldn’t a healthy Yankees roster get to the World Series? The trick, of course, is actually being healthy come October.
• As a whole, the Yankees have been wildly unpredictable this season, and that trend has carried over to several individual players. But there do seem to be five exceptions to that rule: Brett Gardner, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller have been healthy and steady pretty much all season. There have been a few hiccups here and there — those are inevitable — but for the most part, the Yankees have been able to count on those five. And those five might explain why there have been more good moments than bad. Three of the top four hitters in the lineup, and the last two-plus innings of a close game. Those five guys help the Yankees win a lot of games.
• In the past few weeks, Girardi really seemed to be giving David Carpenter every opportunity to get his season turned around. He was pitching a little more often than he did back in April, got into a couple of tied games. In retrospect, it seems like a kind of sink-or-swim test, and when Carpenter gave up that RBI double on Tuesday night, he’d officially sunk. If Carpenter had gotten that out, I wonder if he might have stuck around a little longer.
• Along those same lines, I wonder if Girardi is doing something similar with Stephen Drew. After a couple of days off to clear his head and tweak some things, I wonder if Drew gets another week or so of everyday at-bats to see if he can right the ship before Brendan Ryan is ready. If Drew can get something going, then he’ll stick around and Jose Pirela will be optioned. If Drew continues to fall flat, then maybe Pirela gets a real opportunity, Ryan becomes the backup middle infielder, and Drew follows Carpenter into DFA limbo. Right now, I’d say the smart money is on Drew staying and Pirela going, but then again, I didn’t expect the Yankees to actually DFA Carpenter, so what do I know?
• When the Yankees finally add a right-handed reliever to their bullpen — which has to be inevitable, right? — my guess would be Jose Ramirez. That’s as much a gut feeling as it is an educated guess. Ramirez just seems to have the right combination of big league experience, raw stuff and Triple-A numbers. He’s pitched well lately, could go two or three innings if necessary, and Girardi’s familiar with him. If I had to guess which reliever could be called up in the next couple of weeks, I’d pick Ramirez. Who goes down or gets DFA to make room for him, I don’t know.
• Unless someone gets hurt, Garrett Jones is never going to play a huge role on this team. But he does have a role to play, and it really seems that he’s learning how to play it. The Yankees absolutely have to keep Rodriguez and Teixeira healthy and productive, so it will be helpful to pick and choose some opportunities to rest them. Jones should factor heavily into making that happen. If he can hit for power while getting only occasional at-bats — like he did the past two days in Seattle — he’ll help this team even in a limited role.
• When the Yankees were protecting players from the Rule 5 draft, I wasn’t sure Mason Williams was necessary (and if I’d known Slade Heathcott was going to play the way he did in March and April, I certainly would have thought Wililams was unnecessary). But beginning with a strong showing in big league camp, Williams has proven me wrong. I’ve always really liked the guy personally, and now he’s putting up numbers that make it a lot easier to believe in him professionally. Speed and defense have never been a question, but after finally putting up big Double-A numbers, Williams has jumped to Triple-A, taken over the leadoff spot and hit .315/.373/.444 with two stolen bases, six extra-base hits and more walks than strikeouts. It’s only a 13-game sample at the highest level of the minors, but it’s a tremendous sign for a guy who’s always had a world of talent and athleticism, just hadn’t put it all together against advanced competition.
• Am I crazy for starting to believe in Didi Gregorius? Sure, he fell down on Tuesday night, and he continues to occasionally make some bad choices in the field, but he’s also made some spectacular plays in the past week or so (that play up the middle yesterday was incredible). He’s also started to hit a little bit, with a few more line drives and eight hits in his past six games. He’s always going to be a bottom-of-the-order hitter, but he doesn’t have to always be a .220 hitter. And some of those overly aggressive mistakes might fade away with time. I always thought he was worth a shot, and lately he’s actually showing signs of earning his playing time.
• Speaking of which, Ryan’s first two Triple-A rehab games were played at second base and third base. I’m sure he’ll get a turn at shortstop eventually, but the Yankees seem to be prioritizing him as a backup at other positions. To me that suggests Gregorius is going to keep getting most of the shortstop at-bats without falling into a straight platoon when Ryan returns. If that were the plan, surely Ryan would be playing mostly shortstop in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. If Ryan is moving around, then Gregorius isn’t going to be losing a ton of playing time at short. Or maybe I’m reading way too much into two games of a rehab assignment.
• Teixeira is certainly putting up all-star numbers, but I’m not sure he’s going to be an all-star player. He deserves it, but first base is always a crowded position, and right now the American League has Miguel Cabrera, Eric Hosmer, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Abreu. Not that all of those guys are putting up Teixeira-level numbers, but they’ve been good and productive. Either Cabrera or Hosmer will be the starter, and both Pujols and Fielder will surely get support on the players’ ballots. I think Teixeira would be a fine all-star pick, but I won’t be at all surprised if he doesn’t make it. As good as Teixeira’s been in his career, he’s only been an all-star twice.
Associated Press photos