Yanks need 15-K Tanaka to show up for post­sea­son run

New York Daily News - - SPORTS -

Masahiro Tanaka has pro­vided plenty of head-scratch­ing starts, in ei­ther di­rec­tion, in a con­found­ing reg­u­lar sea­son that be­gan with a clunker on Open­ing Day in Tampa and con­cluded with a ster­ling 15-strike­out per­for­mance on Fri­day at the Sta­dium. In be­tween, Tanaka has shown ex­actly why the de­bate has been so fierce over whether he should or will opt out of the re­main­ing three years and $67 mil­lion on his con­tract dur­ing the off­sea­son.

You’d or­di­nar­ily be tempted to be­lieve a gem like Fri­day’s 4-0 win over Toronto bodes well for Tanaka’s next out­ing if his suc­ces­sor as team ace, Luis Sev­erino, helps get the Yan­kees into the AL di­vi­sion series against ei­ther Cleve­land or Hous­ton with a win in whichever one-game play­off sce­nario they will face early next week.

That’s cer­tainly the half-full glass Joe Gi­rardi was of­fer­ing sips from af­ter­ward, and the one the 90-win Yanks must cling to as far as Tanaka is con­cerned if they are to ac­tu­ally ad­vance in the post­sea­son be­yond the AL wild­card game.

Still, even the $155 mil­lion righty read­ily ad­mits he has been the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of un­even­ness for six months. He barely fin­ished with a win­ning record at 13-12 and needed his seven shutout in­nings against the Jays to keep his ERA be­low 5.00 for the year, fin­ish­ing at 4.74.

“It’s pretty ob­vi­ous there were a lot of ups and downs this sea­son,” Tanaka said through his trans­la­tor. “I re­ally want to take this year as sort of a learn­ing process.

“Hope­fully, in the fu­ture I look back at this year as a year that there were a lot of strug­gles, but I was able to learn a lot from it.”

The former All-Star did fin­ish the stretch run with a 3.77 ERA over a dozen ap­pear­ances (6-4) since the Al­lS­tar break af­ter post­ing an un­sightly 5.47 ERA in the first half, prompt­ing Gi­rardi to sug­gest he’s been “far more con­sis­tent” over the fi­nal two-plus months of the sea­son.

But the man­ager’s as­sess­ment is not en­tirely ac­cu­rate if you break down Tanaka’s Septem­ber re­sults alone, al­ter­nat­ing well-pitched wins against Bos­ton and Baltimore with ab­so­lute beat­ings in Texas and Toronto be­fore Fri­day’s lat­est crack at the Jays.

Just last Fri­day, of course, Tanaka had been rocked for three homers and seven earned runs in Toronto, run­ning his long-ball to­tal to 35, third-most in the league and eas­ily a ca­reer-high since join­ing the Yanks in 2014.

Fast for­ward one week, how­ever, and Tanaka’s fourseam fast­ball showed im­proved life, his split­ter was div­ing and his slider bit­ing from the out­set of Fri­day’s mati­nee.

He reg­is­tered three straight strike­outs — all via the split — in the first in­ning alone. And he mowed down the first 14 bat­ters he faced, whiff­ing 10, un­til Eze­quiel Car­rera reached on an in­field sin­gle, de­spite Star­lin Cas­tro’s div­ing stab up the mid­dle.

Two more in­con­se­quen­tial hits fol­lowed, with Tanaka es­tab­lish­ing his ca­reer-high of 15 strike­outs (with zero walks) with a punch-out of Michael Saun­ders to com­plete his sev­enth score­less frame.

The 15 Ks — all but one of which no­tably com­ing via the swing-and-miss — also tied him with Wash­ing­ton’s Stephen Stras­burg for the most in one game by any MLB pitcher this sea­son, and with Yu Darvish (2013) for most by any Ja­panese hurler in the ma­jors.

“The last cou­ple of starts he’s had, I’ve been watch­ing from the side, but there was a lot of move­ment on his pitches to­day,” catcher Austin Romine said. “Prob­a­bly the best I’ve seen his split, ac­tion-wise. It was nice to see him at­tack­ing guys on ev­ery pitch to both sides of the plate.

“I’m sure he got a lot of con­fi­dence out of that. It’s a good thing to fin­ish on that kind of note, and hope­fully he takes that con­fi­dence into (the play­offs).”

Af­ter Sonny Gray flushed a siz­able lead one night ear­lier, Gi­rardi in­sisted he hasn’t de­cided whether to align Tanaka or Gray for a po­ten­tial Game 1 next Thurs­day should the Yanks reach the di­vi­sion series.

The temp­ta­tion based on the past two days at least has to be to lean to­wards Tanaka, sure.

Just re­mem­ber, he has teased ev­ery­one with other dom­i­nant show­ings ear­lier this year — toss­ing a three-hit shutout in Bos­ton in April, strik­ing out 13 in May against Oak­land, record­ing an eight-in­ning score­less no-de­ci­sion in Texas in June and whiff­ing 14 Rays on July 28.

Count­ing Fri­day’s gem, that’s 54 strike­outs, two walks and a 0.47 ERA in those five games alone. (In his other 25 starts, his ERA is 5.96).

“It gives you a lot of con­fi­dence in him. It just shows you his abil­ity,” Gi­rardi rea­soned about Fri­day’s out­ing. “He’s had a pretty good sec­ond half for us, so we’re go­ing to need that to con­tinue as we move for­ward.”

Yes, that is what they will need. Whether Tanaka is able to re­peat or re­sem­ble such a per­for­mance hasn’t been nearly the cer­tainty all year.

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