On a night in which he clearly didn’t have his best command of the baseball, Masahiro Tanaka still managed to hang in there long enough to give his team a chance to win. He exited what turned into an entertaining pitchers’ duel with Garrett Richards of the Los Angeles Angels trailing 2-1, but thanks to a Mark Teixeira home run in the seventh inning and a passed ball and wild pitch that scored Jacoby Ellsbury in the eighth, the Yankees were able to escape last night’s contest with a 3-2 victory.
Though he has only made five starts to date, early indications are that the Yankees have the real deal in Tanaka. He struggled at times last night and his stuff didn’t appear to be as crisp as we have seen in some his previous outings, yet at the end of game he had still struck out a season-high 11 batters while walking only four. His performances thus far are reminding me of those of another high profile free-agent that arrived in the Bronx to great fanfare, a pitcher who is still (depending on who you talk to) the de facto ace of the staff.
When CC Sabathia first arrived on the scene in New York for the 2009 season, he gave off that workhorse mentality that made you feel like the team had a chance to win each and every time he went to the mound. He was revered for pitching into the later innings of games and giving Joe Girardi’s bullpen a break, dancing around trouble and limiting the damage even if he was getting hit around the park a bit. Tanaka is displaying some of these same characteristics in his first season in the Bronx, overcoming a few rough patches in his starts earlier this year versus Toronto and Boston to pitch effectively and finish strong. Much like the CC of old, he is also picking up his teammates. In the fifth inning last night we saw Ichiro Suzuki botch what should’ve been an inning-ending out into a triple for Howie Kendrick. Up against it, Tanaka refused to give in and struck out Erick Aybar to end the frame.
While some initial reactions labeled the seven-year contract worth $155 million that the Yankees handed out to Tanaka as another typical “panic move” by Brian Cashman and ownership, so far this season he has been as good as advertised. Through his first 35 2/3 innings of work he has a compiled a 2.27 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, and 46/6 K/BB ratio, dominating the opposition with a dizzying array of fastballs, sliders, and splitters. Most importantly, Tanaka is stabilizing a rotation that is dealing with the loss of Ivan Nova, the aging of Hiroki Kuroda, and the absurdness of Michael Pineda.
He will continue to be under the microscope with each passing start, as the successes and failures of his outings will be analyzed in such a way that Tanaka’s detractors will be able to use the results to cast some sort of referendum on the Yankees and their free-wheeling, big spending ways. None of this seems to matter to the 25-year-old at the moment, for Tanaka seems engulfed in his craft and is proving he can keep his team competitive even when he doesn’t has his best stuff.